Articles posted by Karl Schaefer

Egypt in the Rearview Mirror

January 18, 2010
This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

So, here I am on my way home. The first leg of three flights that will hopefully have me home and in my own bed this evening. Something like 7 AM Friday, Cairo time, but eight hours earlier in Des Moines. A long day, but my last two days in Cairo were long, too.

Tuesday, I had made two appointments to try to wrap up my block print research, at least insofar as it was possible to “wrap it up” when the largest collection—at the Museum of Islamic Art—was inaccessible. My first stop was at the Dar al-Kutub, the Egyptian Center for the Book on the Corniche downtown. I had already sent them a letter and had called them before I left Alexandria to make certain that they were expecting me. When I arrived, I told the front desk who I wanted to see and, after a bit of confusion, was ushered into Abd Allah’s office. Handshakes, smiles, an invitation to sit while he did some other business. When he returned, with a copy of my letter in hand, he told me that the director who would have to give the final okay on my seeing the artifact I wanted to see had not yet arrived. Typical.

“Okay, so I’ll come back,” I say. “I have another appointment this morning and I’ll just go there first.”

“Oh,” says Abd Allah. “What time will you come back?” Like I could possibly know. This is Egypt.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “Could be an hour, could be an hour and a half, could be two hours.”

“Ah,” says Abd Allah, looking very unhappy.

“Sorry,” I shrug. “I have very little time left and I need to get this work done. I’ll be back.”

Climb into a cab and go off to the Egyptian Geographical Society museum next to the City Council Chambers. Always a treat having to go through security there just to get to the museum, but it’s the only way in. Dr. Abu al-Izz is expecting me, so I only have to wait fifteen minutes to be shown to his office. Dr. Abu al-Izz is eighty if he’s a day, slightly bent and rather frail, but his voice and handshake are still strong. I submit to the routine interrogation about the nature of my work and its focus, suffering his frequent interruptions with questions and comments. He is very genteel and not at all arrogant so I don’t take offence. His English is very good and I sort of like talking with him. He’s interested in what I have to say.

He finally calls in his curator (whom I met on my first visit here) and, after Dr. Abu al-Izz fills him in, the curator and I head down to the museum. Of course, the curator has his own agenda and insists on showing me a display case full of writing instruments and personal stamps that were used for indicating ownership of books and other purposes. He tells me that a group of small metal stamps was made to be carried by illiterate people who would use them instead of signing their names on government documents, contracts and the like. He tells me that such things were used until the early part of the twentieth century in Egypt. That was actually interesting.

After about half an hour of looking over the dusty stuff in that cabinet, we were brought tea and moved to the case containing the block print I came to see. The curator took the strip of paper, protected by a sheet of glass, out of the case. I took my measurements and made my observations on it. The curator tried reading it and told me that there wasn’t a single real Arabic word on the paper; it was all gibberish. I looked at it and had to admit that I didn’t see any identifiable words anywhere. If this is indeed the case, then it supports the theory that many of the block prints were not meant to be read. However, this is the first one of this kind that I have encountered.

After completing my examination, I am taken upstairs to Dr. Abu al-Izz’s office once more. I thank him for his courtesies and promise to send him a copy of my book. Since he has a block print in his collection, I say, he ought to have some reference material on them. We shake hands, promise to keep in touch and I’m off. Back at the Dart al-Kutub, I find that the director has finally arrived and I am shown into his office. The guy’s in his mid-fifties, maybe, graying kinky hair worn over his ears on the sides but thinning on top. His face is remarkably wrinkle free and open. He doesn’t tell me his name and he doesn’t speak English so, after the obligatory pleasantries, he reads through the Arabic annotations on the letter I had sent and asks me what sort of books I want to see. I tell him it’s not a book I’m interested in, but a piece of paper bearing printing. Could be from the tenth or eleventh century, maybe.

I show him the accession number and he tells me there is no such system in use in the Dar al-Kutub. Where did I get the number? I explain to him what the source is, who wrote it, and when. Not even a flicker of recognition crosses his face. Trouble, I knew it. He obviously thinks I’m an idiot because he launches into a long monologue about Arabic printing, when it started, nothing printed before such and such a date, blah, blah, blah. I let him have his say and then repeat that what I am looking for is not, repeat, NOT a book, but a document.

“It’s here? In the Dar al-Kutub?” he asks.

“As far as I know,” I reply. “The last person to have seen it, to my knowledge, saw it in the 1920’s so where exactly it might be now, I don’t have a clue.”

He thinks for a minute as people flow in and out of his office asking questions and having him review letters or documents. When he has a moment, he looks up at me and calls the head of the rare books division. He comes to the office and the director explains, as best he can, what he thinks I want. He suggests to the rare books guy that he show me what he’s got. Rare book guy and I then troop down to his office, through a warren of spaces lined with compact shelving units. Once in his office, he has his guys drag out old lithographed books for me to look at.

“Is this what you’re interested in?” How about this one?”

“Nope, and nope,” I reply shaking my head.

I recite my explanation—by now almost memorized and with much better Arabic than the first time I gave it—and he listens patiently. I describe, roughly the dimensions and what I think it looks like: three strips of paper arranged one next to the other. Each strip about 40 cm. long. He shakes his head.

“Don’t have anything like that.” “Hey Ahmad (I don’t remember his real name),” he says to one of his guys. “Do you know where such a thing might be?”

Ahmad has heard the explanation and he says, maybe in the manuscript department.

“Oh,” says the chief. “That’s a different department all together. You’ll have to go and get permission from the director’s director in order to see anything there.”

Will this never end? Back upstairs to the BIG director’s office. Of course, he’s not in and I end up sitting in his outer office with varying numbers of people, some of whom seem to be working while others seem to be hanging out and socializing. I decide that I’m not leaving until I see this guy. After an hour, Dr. Abd al-Nasser Hassan Mohamed finally shows up and I have to go through my routine again. Somewhere in all the comings and goings, my letter has disappeared and now, he says, I have no authorization to see what I want to see. I look at him and tell him that the letter is here, just track it down, please. He must decide that that would take up too much of his valuable time, so he makes a note on a photocopy of the page I’ve given him showing the accession number, and he calls one of his people to show me to the manuscripts division. I thank him and go off with the assistant to the manuscript division, down more stairs and across several bleak lobbies and staircase landings.

I enter a workroom through a door bearing the legend “Manuscript Division” in Arabic and am greeted by four young men and a hijab clad woman. I learn that they are in the process of compiling a ten-volume collection of studies on papyri that Adolf Grohmann, a famous 19th-20th century scholar, had worked on in Cairo. They know Grohmann, the source for my information about the piece I want to see. Finally, maybe some progress! When I ask if they have a copy of the book in which I found the description, they say no, but they do have a record of all his accession numbers. Unfortunately, their computer records do not show mine. Just great. But in the meantime, one of the guys asks me if the thing I’m after is on papyrus. I say no, I don’t think so.

“Too bad,” he says. “We just published a catalogue of the papyri in the National Library. Here it is.”

I start leafing through it. I notice at least two items that are clearly block prints even though the catalogue identifies them as manuscripts. The woman suddenly busies herself with some papers. The catalogue is heavily illustrated and I notice that not all the pieces are on papyrus. There are paper documents as well, and, lo and behold! here is a picture of one thing that fits the description exactly. I show the image to the guys who crowd around, murmuring among themselves. Suddenly, the woman, who has been working at an adjacent table, spins around with a set of galleys from the book I’m looking at in her hand. She points excitedly. There, in the galley, is the same page I’m looking at WITH my accession number on it. The guys quickly busy themselves with their computers. A correction is obviously in order. There was apparently an omission somewhere and that number did not get into the computer system. The woman is very excited about the discovery and I congratulate her on her keen eye. She beams. A Eureka moment.

When I ask where it is, the collective answer is, “Not here.”

My elation turns into ashes. Now what? It appears that the item IS in the Dar al-Kutub, just not in THIS one. It’s in another building known as Bab al-Khalq, located near the Museum of Islamic Art. The woman has contacted the Dr. Mohamed by phone in the meantime and he is going to notify the Bab al-Khalq that I’m coming. The director is even organizing a car to take me there. Oh, but wait. No, sorry, they close soon. You’ll have to go tomorrow, but don’t worry; they know you’re coming. I thank everyone and on my way out buy a copy of the papyri catalogue in the Dar al-Kutub bookstore.

Four hours to get to this point, and I could be annoyed, but some progress has been made, so I’ll just re-adjust my schedule for Wednesday and fit in a visit to the Dar al-Khalq. I decide that I had better take care of some other business today so that I don’t run out of time tomorrow. I grab a cab and go to Dokki to close out my Egyptian bank account. That process goes quite smoothly and I end up with a little free time before a dinner engagement, so I head to Zamalek, the island in the Nile, where I grab a cappuccino and a piece of cake at Beano’s. Another last. I walk around for a while enjoying Zamalek’s village-like atmosphere, check out some jewelry shops and handicraft stores, but am not tempted by anything.

I finally decide to call Ginger da Costa, a fellow Fulbrighter  who lives nearby, to ask if I can hang out until we go to dinner. She says sure, so I traipse over to her building and spend a pleasant hour or so talking with her and her roommate Dominique. At eight, we are joined by two more Fulbrighters from upstairs and together we walk to the Trattoria, a very nice Italian restaurant where we find eight more Fulbright people waiting for us. This is a group send-off for Ginger and myself and our last chance to spend time with our friends. There is wine and good conversation. Photos are taken and hugs shared before we set off to our various abodes. Another last.

Wednesday, I was up at 6:30 and ready to go by 9. I grabbed a cab and took it to the Dar al-Kutub in Bab al-Khalq. I got there just as the place was opening. I told the guard at the entrance that I had an appointment with the director, Layla Rizk. Was she in yet? No, he tells me, not yet. May I wait? Of course. In the meantime, the guard calls the director’s office and talks with someone there. I’m guided upstairs to the office and when I explain the purpose of my visit and that the director is expecting me, he calls the director’s mobile phone and hands the receiver to me.

Dr. Rizk is on the other end. I introduce myself and tell her why I’m there. I tell her that I had been told that Dr. Mohamed at the other building had made arrangements for me to do some research here. Dr. Rizk tells me she has had no information about this. She had been at a meeting with him last night and he had mentioned nothing of this to her. I’ll have to come back. Nope, not this time. I get a little testy and tell her that I’m leaving Cairo very soon, that I’ve been trying to get access to this artifact for a month, that I am constantly given misleading or incomplete information, that I have spent more time sitting in offices and waiting than I have spent doing the research I wanted to do, etc., and I’m not happy.

“Okay,” she says. “Put my assistant on again.”

I hand the receiver to the guy who says “Hello,” and then “Yes, ma’am, yes, ma’am.”

I’m then escorted downstairs to another office where I meet an assistant director who listens to my request and, with assistance from her colleague, starts looking for my accession number. Same story as yesterday. They don’t have it. I ask if they have a library or a bookstore in the building. Yes they do. May I see it? Of course. There is a copy of the catalogue there and I get permission to take the book to the assistant director’s office where I show her what I want to see.

“Oh, that!” she says. “That’s upstairs in conservation. I’ll get someone to take you up.”

Hallelujah! I finally get to see what I came to see and am treated very nicely the entire time. I promise to send a copy of my book to the assistant director for their library and thank her for all her help.

I go out and hop another cab to the Gayer-Anderson Museum where I’m also expected. Now that I’m known there, the director greets me like a long-lost friend and within half an hour I am in the archives, searching—with the assistance of two women employees of the museum–for my missing block print. Two drawers and umpteen conservation folders later, we finally find the last of the four block prints that I had been told were here. A very nice one, small, but very clearly printed. I do my work, say thanks and goodbye to the director and his staff and take a deep breath. I’m officially done with the research part of my project. And not a minute to spare.

Later that afternoon, I head to Dokki again to say goodbye to Bruce Lohof and his staff at the Fulbright office. Bruce and I spend an hour in very pleasant and lively conversation. I tell him how much I admire his operation and thank him, again, for the opportunity to participate in his program. I head back home to change for dinner and stop in briefly at Zohair Hussain’s apartment around the corner to say goodbye to him. He has guests and insists on feeding me before I leave, despite my protestations that I’m already invited to eat. I offer my apologies for having to run off and we give each other a hug at the door. I’ll miss his intensity. My last evening in Cairo is spent at Jamie Balfour-Paul’s houseboat apartment where Ginger, Dominique and I enjoy a home cooked meal and a couple bottles of wine. Jamie is a wonderful host and the food is good and filling. Fruit salad and blue cheese and crackers top it all off. At ten, I say my final goodbyes and take a cab home. At midnight I’m in bed; in six hours, I’ll be on my way to the Cairo airport.

Ibrahim picked me up this morning and with light morning traffic, I was through security and re-packing my way-too-heavy suitcase. I had to remove a bunch of stuff and pack it in a cardboard box (which they provided) so that my heavy case wouldn’t break the conveyor in Heathrow (so I’m told). After that, things went quite smoothly. Cairo slid away from under us in the early morning sun. The Nile, Saladin’s Citadel, Muhammad Ali’s mosque and other landmarks I knew from my stay were soon out of sight. The snowy Alps passed under us a while ago and we’re now descending into Heathrow. Time to close this operation down. I’m going home.

Many Last Things

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The last few days have been days of “lasts.” The last few workshops and meetings with Collection Development and Information Literacy librarians at the Bibliotheca; the last meeting with Dr. Wastawi, the library director; the last visits to my local grocery stores; the last sunset in Alexandria; the last sunrise in Alexandria; the last ride from Alexandria to Cairo.

The final workshops were a bit of a disappointment, in truth. I had a rather serious dispute with Nermin, the woman who is the head of collection development. She had been insisting that I grade her colleagues on their performance in preparing their individual collection development statements. I told her that I didn’t think that it was my place to pass judgment on the work of her colleagues in so formal a fashion; I had been giving them critiques of their work throughout the process of writing their collection development policies and told her that I thought everyone had done his or her best.

The statements, by and large, are nearly ready for final revisions and polishing before being included in the library’s collection development policy. I told Nermin that I felt everyone had done the work they had been asked to do, but she insisted that I grade them 0%-100%. I refused. I did not see that as my role and told her so, adding that I was not her employee, nor were the selectors my employees. Moreover, I said I would not take that sort of direction from her. Every revision had passed through her hands, together with my comments and corrections, and she had had ample opportunity, in my view, to check on her people’s progress and effort herself. So I was in her dog house. Fine. I can bark with the best of them.

In any case, this tension carried over into the final sessions in which I gave presentations on what I saw as the final details each selector needed to pay attention to in order to bring everyone’s work into line with the format of the draft document: using the same font size and typeface, for example; checking for grammatical and syntactical errors one more time; making sure that each section of each policy statement contained the same headings and numbering system, things like that. I congratulated the selectors on their efforts and told those who attended that I thought they had done very good work. I asked that they not flag when the end of their task was so near.

What is important about this project is that they now have, in writing, a set of guidelines and procedures for each of their collections. These statements will find their way to the web in electronic format as well, so librarians in other libraries and people wanting to use the Bibliotheca Alexandrina can refer to them when they need to know what, exactly the library holds or collects in a given area. Within a fairly rigid format, I tried to allow the selectors space to characterize their collections in their own words, so that the individual collections might be shown to have “personalities,” too. With any luck, the “final” version of the complete Collection Development Policy should be ready to be put together by the middle of this year. I have offered to continue serving as a “consultant” until the end of May by which time the texts for the individual subject collections should be in their final form. Then it’s up to the Bibliotheca to see to it that the policy is finalized. Even as the material now stands, it will be very useful for all the collectors to use when they attend the Cairo Book Fair later this month. That is their main opportunity for buying books and having the guidelines fresh in their minds will no doubt help them make better selection decisions there.

The Information Literacy sessions (there were two final ones) were not well attended and I was disappointed at that. The first session I designed as a planning session for thinking about alternate ways of presenting information in their classes. The primary method is lecture, with occasional assignments and I have been urging the instructors to re-think their pedagogy to include other approaches, like group work or demonstrations to which several students will need to contribute.

The concern I heard voiced continually by the instructors over my time at the library was that students were not engaged in the material. So I tried to show them alternative methods of teaching one unit—I chose Boolean searching as my example—suggesting a variety of approaches to get students to practice the techniques, think about potential applications of such searches and to share what they learned with other students in the class. The instructors, I think, saw the advantages of using many of the tactics we discussed, but they expressed concern over the amount of time such activities would take away from covering other topics.

This brought us back to the subject of re-designing the entire instruction program so that this type of teaching could be accommodated. The head of the unit expressed her concern for doing just that, but she seems uncertain about just how the unit might accomplish such a restructuring given that the instructors, like the selectors, have multiple responsibilities. The restructuring probably could be done piecemeal as long as the overall goal is kept in mind. The librarians and their unit head are capable of working out a strategy to do that and I think that a re-design of the program would improve the outcomes for the students and the satisfaction level of the instructors with regard to their teaching.

On Saturday, I decided to do one last cultural thing and visited a little out-of-the-way museum in the older part of town dedicated to Constantine Kavafy. Kavafy belonged to a rather prominent Alexandrian Greek family that seems to have moved around quite a bit during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. He spent time in Constantinople and Greece before finally settling in Alexandria. He worked for the British colonial authority as a clerk or something and lived in a modest apartment in what was then the Greek community.

The apartment was on the third floor above a brothel, a block away from the Greek hospital and just down the street from the Greek Orthodox Church. In his spare time, Kavafy wrote poetry in Greek, but his work was little noted during most of his life. After his death, however, it was revealed that, in addition to having genuine talent, he had been an important influence on Franz Kafka and other greats of the nihilist movement. He is now recognized as one of Greece’s greatest poets of the modern period. Kavafy is supposed to have said that his apartment was in the ideal location since he was near the three temples of life: the temple of the flesh for carnal needs; the temple of healing for dealing with illness, and the temple of the soul for dealing with death. I wanted to see this place if for no other reason than that it was off the beaten track.

I was the first visitor at about eleven AM but before I left, two other people had rung the doorbell and paid admission. While signing the guest register at the end of myvisit, I noted that, contrary to my expectations, there was a fairly healthy daily attendance. The museum was not terribly interesting; Kavafy’s family had apparently sold of most of his belongings after his death (he wasn’t famous yet) and when the Greek cultural authorities decided to create the museum in Alexandria, they had to use photos to try to identify the furniture that he had owned in order to buy it back and replace it in the apartment. Most of the exhibits were either photos of the Kavafy family at various stages of their lives or display cases filed with Constantine’s volumes of poetry published in various languages. Other cases contained works of scholarship on Kavafy and his writings. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours and it put me close to a good coffee house where I could sit and enjoy a cup of Arabic coffee and a piece of fruit tart afterward.

On Sunday, I cleared out my little office (which meant essentially making sure I pushed the chair in and turned out the light). I went and said goodbye and thanks to Sohair al-Wastawi and then surrendered my office key and security card. Later that afternoon, the cleaning guys came and cleaned the apartment while I did a little packing. Once they finished I had my friend Ahmad come and pick me up in his taxi for one last meal at a nice restaurant overlooking Alexandria harbor. The night was misty and the view therefore somewhat obscured, but romantic, in a way. My meal was okay, but not outstanding. I was a little disappointed but the atmosphere was pleasant and I was already focused on leaving.

Ibrahim would come from the Fulbright office and pick me up at 10 AM for the trip back to Cairo on Monday. I wanted to be sure that I had not forgotten to pack everything and called Ahmad to take me back to the apartment. I said goodnight and goodbye to him, promising to stay in touch. Last night in Alexandria. One last look over the city from my balcony and then off to bed.

Ibrahim was right on time. He caught me downstairs saying goodbye to the building manager and owner; Ibrahim’s arrival was an occasion for a cup of tea with Mr. Ramdan Radi, the owner of the building. He and I visited while Ibrahim and the manager discussed closing up the apartment. Once they finished their business, the three of us went upstairs and Ibrahim inspected the premises. He started collecting various items and putting them in a plastic bag. When I explained to him that I had intended those items to be left for the next Fulbright inhabitant, he called the office and put me on the phone with Maggie Williams, who is the local logistics coordinator (for lack of a better term). She explained that the apartment did not belong to the Fulbright Commission and therefore had to be vacated totally. I told her that I had intended for the items I had bought to be used by the next Fulbrighter in Alexandria and she assured me that they would store the items until that time came. Once that misunderstanding was cleared up, we packed everything into Ibrahim’s car and drove to Cairo.

Traffic was not bad and by mid-afternoon I was ensconced in my friend’s apartment in Garden City. In the evening, I went for a walk and had a dinner of kofta—spicy ground lamb wrapped around a metal skewer and grilled over charcoal—at a little restaurant on Talat Harb Street. I poked around a couple of shops but didn’t feel the need to buy much of anything. The next day I had two museum appointments scheduled and I wanted to get a good night’s sleep before taking on that particular challenge.

Livin’ “La Vida Bashawiyah”*

January 11, 2010
This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

[*With apologies to Ricky Martin for the reference to his song “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” The term “basha” or “pasha” is used in Egypt in several ways. In the strict sense, a pasha is an eastern ruler. In current popular usage, the word is a sort of casual honorific, a form of address one uses with a stranger in order to get their attention. A driver needing directions might say, “Hey, Basha!” to the corner cop. In the way I have used it here, I mean the lifestyle of one who has an elevated social and economic position that allows him (the term is masculine, after all) to live a life of ease and luxury which is perceived to be the kind of life one might live if he were, in fact such a ruler. In brief: the sort of life I have been living since I arrived here.]

I could get used to this. Having been “in country,” as the diplomatic types put it, for four months now, it’s easy to see how generations of Europeans found Egyptian life so seductive and appealing. For those of us earning American level wages, even modest ones, the standard of living one is able to maintain is rather posh: Palatial (almost literally) apartments, cheap transportation, inexpensive food, cheap service labor, nice climate (most of the time), deference from the locals. Our presence is generally welcomed, at least from my brief experience interacting with people. The Egyptians are friendly, hospitable, generous, and eager to please. At least outwardly, they seem to be happy that we’re here.

It doesn’t hurt that President Obama elected to visit Egypt last year and make a speech that is widely viewed as a very positive one, from the Egyptian perspective. His autobiography, Dreams of My Father, has been translated into Arabic already. Taxi drivers, almost without exception, smile broadly and say, thumbs way up, “Obama good!” when you tell them you’re an American. The worst criticism I’ve heard—and this only once, so far—is that the Egyptians LIKE Americans; they just DON’T LIKE our government. We are perceived as a flawed but admirable force for good in the world, and if we could just remove our collective cranium from our collective rectum, we might actually be really good. In a country with several THOUSAND years of recorded history, we’re still viewed as naïfs on the world stage and our naïveté is being graciously excused, for the nonce. Surprisingly, when I expressed the opinion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were huge mistakes, the reaction was, generally, “Well, maybe.” War, in general, is viewed by Egyptians as a bad thing and is not considered a viable option for solving the region’s political problems. This from taxi drivers, as well as from members of the educated class. (A point of clarification: many of the cab drivers I ride with ARE educated. They are victims of a stagnant economy that has failed to provide them with work in their chosen fields, so they turn to cab driving as a fairly reliable way to make a living. This is no doubt the main reason I can have so many thoughtful, articulate discussions with them. And a lot of those discussions are at least partially in English!)

Egypt is astounding for it stark contrasts and other travelers have long noted this: The bright green of the Nile Valley against the emptiness of the desert; the bustle and urbanity of Cairo and Alexandria versus the grittiness and poverty of small villages; the suit and skirt attired urbanites versus the galabiya and hijab of the lower classes and villagers. It is a country where a public amanuensis can still be found doing a brisk business outside a government office, completing official forms for those who can neither read nor write, but where everyone, it seems, has a cell phone and internet cafes are common.

Vendors still cry their wares in the streets, “Eggs!” “Clean water!” “Propane!” Subsidized bread is sold on the streets, one Egyptian pound for five or six pitas, so that the poorest will have something, at least, to feed their families. On the other hand, shopping malls the equal of any found in the States or Europe are everywhere, and tennagers are hanging out just like in the States. One of the dismaying aspects of modern Egyptian life is that it is creating a generation of mall rats, just like us.

Many, if not most, people rely on the dilapidated public buses and trains, or on rafts of overloaded mini-buses and scruffy taxis for transport. Many others use motorcycles, if they’re lucky, or donkeys or bicycles. But just last evening, as I walked a street near my apartment, I was passed by a late-model car containing two young Egyptian males, the stereo blasting rap music. Increasingly, I see young women doing the same thing, driving to work in their hijabs with pop music thumping and cell phones glued to their ears.

Car dealers, by the way, seem to be doing a fairly brisk business. There are two or three located in my neighborhood, wedged into Starbuck’s-sized spaces. The new arrivals are prepped for buyers on the street, the white plastic protective film stripped off in pieces, the sale negotiated on the sidewalk or in a cramped corner at the back of the shop. Most people who have cars drive civilian versions of the Lada 2107’s, the ubiquitous taxi cab model of choice, or other Asian or European makes—Peugeots, Skodas, Hondas, Hyundais, Fiats; the newly wealthy or upwardly mobile prefer Nissans or BMWs, it seems, and in Cairo, a lot of the new white taxis are compact Chevrolets.

Internationally recognized scholars and professionals were educated, live and work here, but the ability to read is limited to about two-thirds of the population. Libraries are still relatively rare, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina notwithstanding, and while booksellers stalls are not uncommon, few Egyptian homes have bookshelves. Men sitting in cafes drinking coffee and sucking on water pipes rarely seem to have their noses in newspapers or magazines as Americans or Europeans would. At the same time, the seams of the universities are bursting from the huge numbers of students attending classes and I have to assume that they are reading. The street adjacent to the University of Alexandria’s Business and Tourism campus has at least four bookstores which carry textbooks as well as more mainstream fare, and they seem to be bustling, or at least not going out of business any time soon. On any given day, the Alexandria Library, which can accommodate two thousand readers, is at least half full of people studying. But books are expensive and the poor probably have better things to do with their money.

It is the educated class to which one looks to for a better future for Egypt, but there are quite a few problems attached to that hope. High school graduates with the requisite grades are guaranteed a place at a university, so qualifying grades are wheedled and cajoled (when they aren’t earned) by those who would not otherwise be admitted. Quality of instruction has therefore fallen. The public universities are packed with students; Cairo University alone has more than 100,000 students enrolled; the University of Alexandria several tens of thousands. Private universities are beginning to sprout as well, promising a higher level of academic rigor, smaller classes and better prospects for their graduates than that provided in the overwhelmed public institutions. It seems everyone—at least every city dweller under the age of forty—has a BA and many have advanced degrees. But you have lawyers working as bank clerks, elevator operators, and sales people. The universities seem to be used as social pressure relief valves, keeping young people, who would have no work otherwise, occupied and hopeful for the future. With Egypt’s economy stagnant, however, most of these young people will get low-level skilled jobs, at best, and be stuck there for their working lives.

The public universities pay their faculty very little—2000-3000 Egyptian Pounds per month (about $500-$600)—if they’re lucky, so many professors hold two positions just to make ends meet. The most talented are recruited by the private universities, leaving the publics with a few dedicated teachers and a large pool of mediocrity. The graduates of the better schools, I’m told, like the American University in Cairo, are themselves children of privilege, coming mostly from Egypt’s upper crust, and have no plans to remain in Egypt after graduation. They see their futures in Europe or the United States. One of my Fulbright colleagues who teaches there had to explain to one of his classes the concept of “brain drain.” His students had no grasp of the consequences for Egypt’s future of their choosing to live in another country. These students’ ability to feel at home in two languages—many of them have attended a French, American, or German private school—means that they have the option to leave and find a better life for themselves elsewhere.Their less fortunate, less well-trained or less well-connected colleagues will stay.

In general, the economic division between the Egyptian elite and most of the population is growing. On the one hand, this is a country where farmers still sell their produce on street corners; bunches of parsley, carrots, mulukhiyah, and other vegetables lie wilting in the sun as the farmers, who have arisen before dawn and ridden a decrepit commuter train into town, wait for itinerant customers to buy something from them. I buy the tastiest little bananas from a guy on a corner between my apartment and the Muzak-filled San Stefano Mall, which even featured a two-story live Christmas tree in the central hub earlier this year. I prefer his fruit but, because of the concern for hygiene, I don’t buy root vegetables from him. I can find veggies wrapped in plastic in the local mall, just like in the States and those Egyptians who want to be “modern” buy theirs there, too. My banana man’s days are numbered, I’m afraid. What will happen when he loses his livelihood? More fodder for the Islamists who blame all this change on “westerners?”

Many, if not most, small farmers in Egypt still farm with draft animals, donkeys, horses, and “tuktuks,” the water buffalo one sees in fields all along the Nile. Tractors are here and there, but they are still a relative rarity, except in the larger farming villages. In the meantime, industrial farming is making inroads. I’m told that virtually all the milk consumed in Egypt comes from one dairy. Okay, so the Egyptians aren’t big milk drinkers, but even so.

The land along the Nile is very fertile. On our recent trip to the pyramids at Saqqara, I saw cauliflower being harvested. Donkey carts groaning under huge piles rolled along dirt roads toward the city. The cauliflower heads were the size of pizzas! But the farmland is under threat from urban sprawl, as it is in much of the world. One sees apartment buildings sprouting everywhere in farming communities, occupying ground that once produced food. One person told me that Egypt spends more each year on importing eggs and dairy products than it cost to build the Bibliotheca Alexandrina ($200+ million…)! The growing population demands living space, though, and many of these buildings are occupied even before construction is completed.

While in Egypt, I have occasionally expressed the view that Egypt seems to be balanced on a knife’s edge, politically and socially. Those to whom I have voiced this opinion, both Americans who are more familiar with the country than I, and Egyptians, have tended to agree with that assessment. As far as I can tell, there is no overt social or political tension among the people I speak with. Rather, the mood is one of resignation and sadness; not quite despair, but a longing and a disappointment over the state of affairs in the country. Egyptians know that they could—and SHOULD—have better lives and feel a great deal of resentment toward a government that has failed them on so many levels. Elections are widely considered a joke, but everyone participates anyway. A justifiable fear of being scooped up by the police if you publically criticize Mubarak and “disappeared” for an indeterminate period of time keeps political discourse mostly private. The relative anonymity of a conversation between a cab driver and his (obviously NOT Egyptian) passenger creates something of a safe space for open expressions of opinion, however.

One important part of my experience in Egypt has been missing, and that is the opportunity to interact with Egyptian women. While the social barriers between Muslim men and women are breaking down, specifically among young, educated people, they were still palpable to me as a foreigner. Most of the librarians I have worked with at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina are women, but there was little chance that a conversation over coffee—much less a drink at a bar—would be possible. I did manage to have some brief, but revealing, talks with a couple of librarians, but nothing as substantive as the talks I have had with Egyptian men. As I have noted, the number of women from all social classes who wear hijab is overwhelming and that physical barrier is like a big STOP sign to someone who has been taught what hijab “means,” regardless of the reason for any given Egyptian woman putting it on.

Appearances, as the old saw goes, can be deceiving but I did not feel comfortable testing my theory that in many cases, donning the hijab is a simple way of deflecting social opprobrium while preserving a degree of personal autonomy: you’re wearing the hijab, ergo, you must be a good Muslim woman. So you can wear tight jeans and high heels and make-up as long as your hair and chest are covered; you can hold hands with your boyfriend as you walk to class—as long as you wear hijab. You can even sit on a bench in a public park with your arms about each other—as long as you wear hijab. One of my informants, a young Muslim man, told me of a New Year’s Eve party he attended where men and women mixed freely; alcohol (specifically gin) was served and when inhibitions, as a consequence, were diminished, a lot of kissing ensued. Much more interesting than MY New Year’s Eve…

A woman colleague at the library, responding to a comment I made about the number of women students I saw in the reading rooms, expressed her unhappiness about the gender imbalance, saying that finding a worthy partner was a daunting prospect; women still had to marry according to a societal code and to meet certain expectations while Muslim men “could marry anyone they wanted to.” Men in Egyptian society are certainly the more privileged gender, both outwardly and in their personal lives. Rarely does one see couples sitting in the numerous coffee houses of Cairo or Alexandria; most of the patrons are male and many of them spend hours of time there, smoking and talking with their friends. Where are the women? Home taking care of the kids, cleaning, washing, cooking so the “basha” will be happy when he decides to come home. Women have their female friends, of course, and one frequently sees women walking arm in arm on the street, but their social lives, it appears, are much more circumscribed and limited than the men’s. One sees younger women in the malls, shopping and working as clerks in the stores. One also sees older women sitting on the street corners, an overturned cardboard box piled high with packets of facial tissue or pens or bottled water, attempting to make a living.

Having said all this, I have to acknowledge that these are only impressions. What the true state of affairs is is beyond my knowing and it varies, no doubt, according to social, economic and family conditions. The situation is almost certainly much more complex than I have been able to indicate. What is certain, beyond a doubt, is that the society is undergoing profound change on several levels and that these changes will result in a society that is quite different than the one that now exists. The big question is whether the forces for progressive change will win out over the reaction of religious “literalists” and other conservatives who see salvation in stricter social controls and enforced adherence to a particular moral code. Events of recent days, including the Orthodox Christmas Day murder of more than half a dozen Coptic Christians by three Muslim men in the town of Naga Hammadi (near Luxor) does not bode well for a reduction of social tensions, nor for positive future. My Egyptian friends would no doubt say that this is a problem, yes, but we have to believe that things will get better.

So, here I sit, in my grand apartment, trying to make some sense out of this experience and realizing that it will take more than five pages of prose to work through it. The sun is out after a foggy night and the city is coming to life. I’m going to take advantage of my privileged position, go downstairs, find a cab and visit a museum, one of my last cultural events in Alexandria. I’ll pay the driver mare than an Egyptian would for the same trip and he’ll be happy. Then I may take myself out to lunch with a cup of good Arabic coffee afterward. I’ll be served politely and asked where I come from and complimented on my Arabic (undeservedly, IMHO), I’ll give the waiter a generous tip when I leave, and he’ll be happy. I’ll take another cab back to the apartment. Another generous compensation for the driver’s trouble and he’ll be happy; the doorman will jump up and call the elevator for me when I climb the front steps. I’ve already given him a small sum in celebration of the New Year. He’s already happy.

“Thank you, Osman, you are too kind, really.”

He’ll smile because I always ask how he is and exchange a few pleasantries with him. Bashas are expected to do things like that and I wouldn’t want to disappoint. I like him and he has done me several favors during my stay. Besides, I have a tradition to uphold. Happy to do it.

Into the Valleys of Death

January 8, 2010
This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Most of the folks we have spent the last three days with are departing this morning for their flights back home. The Brits are all piling onto an early morning plane to Heathrow while others are headed back to Cairo or Germany or wherever they’re from. As a consequence, the foyer on the Ra II is filled with piles of luggage and people queuing up at the front desk to settle their bar bills and whatever other extraordinary expenses they’ve incurred while on board. The breakfast room is rather empty and quiet when Vibs and I sit down to eat. There are even a few new faces around.

We’ve signed on for an extra half day since our flight doesn’t leave until this evening. That means we get to tour the west bank of Luxor where the famous Valley of the Kings and the slightly less famous Valley of the Queens and the quite un-famous Valley of the Nobles lie. The Valley of the Kings holds about sixty-two pharaonic tombs from the Middle Kingdom and later. All these resting places, unlike the pyramids, are carved into the limestone of the hills and are thus completely underground. The first thing one sees at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings Park is a plexiglass diorama showing the location of each of the tombs in three dimensions. The topographical features of the valley are constructed from translucent plastic with white plastic models of each of the tombs suspended beneath them, giving you information not only about the location of the burial places, but their locations relative to one another and an idea of how far underground one has to go in order to see them. Some of them are VERY deep.

Our new guide, Omar, shepherds us through the ticket line and then tells us that our tickets afford us access to three tombs only. Those interested in seeing the tomb of King Tut are required to fork over additional one hundred Egyptian Guineas (about $20). Before we split up he provides us with an overview of the history of the valley and a quick list of recommended tombs to visit. Omar gives us his opinion about which tombs to visit. The quality of wall art in the tombs varies greatly and he warns those who have coughed up the King Tut cash that the ancients didn’t waste a lot of decorative effort on the eighteen year old. He wasn’t Pharaoh long enough to create any sort of lasting legacy, apparently. Maybe they assuaged their guilt by filling the tomb with gold instead…

The crowds here are enormous. Electric trams (little trains on rubber tires like you’d see in Disneyland or someplace like that) carry a steady stream of riders up the quarter mile incline to the entrance, and back. Lines for the more popular tombs stretch for hundreds of meters. Many of the tombs are closed because of the fragility of the art in them. The antiquities authority apparently closes each tomb periodically for varying lengths of time, because the potential for damage to the art resulting from tens of thousands of people breathing in spaces meant for one dead, unbreathing person is very high. Guards posted in each tomb constantly remind people not to touch (most of the wall art is protected by clear plastic screens) and to keep moving; too much breathing is not good for the paintings. Oh, and no pictures. At all. A 1000 LE (Egyptian Pound) fine for taking any sort of photograph. Bright light is apparently also not good for the art. So, sorry, gentle readers. No pretty pictures here.

Vibs and I choose our three tombs and head off. Our first stop is the Tomb of Thutmosis III who was kept of the throne for a long, long time by his mother-in-law, who ruled as a “king.” When she finally went off to meet Osiris, Thutmosis expended a great deal of energy in trying to erase all record of his mother-in-law’s reign. It was he who walled up her obelisk at Karnak. Such spite! His tomb was reached by climbing a long set of stairs up into a narrow defile in the face of a cliff and then descending an equal distance into the earth. At the foot of the stairs was a room about twenty feet square with a big pit in the floor. This was mean to mislead potential grave robbers into believing that the grave was in that pit—and already pilfered, no doubt. Beyond this was a second room and beyond that a third, excavated in the shape of a cartouche, where the empty red granite sarcophagus stood. The walls of the rooms showed scenes of the deceased in prayer and proceeding through the twelve gates of trial before reaching Osiris and final judgment. Textual prayers and amulets against all sorts of evil spirits guarding each of the gates were interspersed among the painted figures. The air was close, hot and damp. We did our tour and emerged gratefully into the sunlight and fresh air.

Our second stop was the tomb of Ramesses IV. His was much more easily accessible, more richly decorated—the depiction on the ceiling of the goddess of night swallowing the setting sun and giving birth to the morning sun was one of the most spectacular. Ramesses’ space was much simpler and more straightforward in construction; a long ramp into the earth with two rooms—one behind the other—at the bottom. More painted figures, invocations for protection, and prayers. When we left this tomb, we realized that the long wait in lines meant that we wouldn’t be able to see a third tomb. Omar had given us a little more than an hour to see what we wanted to see and our time was nearly up. Reluctantly, we made our way back to the meeting point.

Once our group had gathered, we re-boarded the bus and left the Valley of the Kings. On the way out, Omar pointed out the house built by Howard Carter, the excavator of King Tut’s tomb and one of the early archaeologists of pharaonic Egypt. There is a plan to turn the building into a museum, but at present it is not open. We had to satisfy ourselves with a view from a distance. Our next stop was the Valley of the Queens where we made a similar tour with similar restrictions. The most famous tomb here, that of Nefertiti, has been closed for years due to the fragility of its art. There are plans (Egypt always has plans…) to reopen it, but it seems that every time the authorities decide that they have a way to minimize the deleterious effects of thousands of visitors, another obstacle presents itself. In truth one wonders how it is possible to both preserve and make accessible historical sites such as these. Perhaps it isn’t. We may go down in history as the ones responsible for destroying in three hundred years what had lasted for four thousand. What a sad legacy that would be.

Next on the morning’s tour was our obligatory stop at a handicraft outlet. Today’s feature was an alabaster production studio where workers produced a variety of useful and decorative objects from stone using hand tools. Under a portico was the graveled entryway to the shop. Along the outside wall was a row of seated men of varying ages, each engaged in a different stoneworking process. Stone dust and chips lay everywhere. Piles of metal tools were scattered about. When our group was all assembled under the portico, the shop manager began his demonstration.

“Welcome to our alabaster studio,” he smiled. “Here we produce handcrafted stone art works from three kinds of stone.” In the background, each of the men was working on a piece of stone. “All the alabaster you see in Egypt comes from Luxor. You will see much alabaster in souqs and shops all around Egypt, but handcrafted alabaster comes only from Luxor because that is part of our tradition here.”

“Alabaster comes in three colors,” the manager continued. “The first color is…”

“White alabaster!” came the chorus from the workers.

“White alabaster is a lovely stone which we use to make such things as lampshades and bowls,” said the manager. “The second color of alabaster is…”

“Red alabaster!” came the response from the workers as they continued scraping and filing and gouging their stones.

“Red alabaster is very good for a number of things including statues, bracelets, lamps and bowls,” continued the manager. The third color of alabaster is…”

“Black alabaster!” the workers, right on cue.

“Black alabaster is used for making statues, figures of pharaohs, cats, ancient gods and goddesses,” he said holding up an example. “Black alabaster is the stone you most frequently see in Egypt because every souvenir shop will try to sell you what they say is black alabaster.” The manager held up a small black statue of Anubis. “But you think this is alabaster?”

“No! Not alabaster!” Came the response from the workers, sawing and scraping.

“No,” agreed the manager. “This may look like alabaster and people will even bang the piece against another stone to show you how hard it is.” He banged the statue against a small rock in his other hand. “It’s not stone, but wax!” He flipped open a lighter and held the flame to one of Anubis’s ears. Within seconds, the ear was flickering with a small blue flame.

“Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you!” sang the workers.

“Don’t let yourselves be taken in,” urged the manager. “Here we have genuine handmade goods that are of stone, not wax or anything else. You will find real alabaster products in good stores, but they are machine made.” He picked up two bowls made of white alabaster and showed them to the group, one in each hand.

“This bowl is machine made. What is it?” he asked, weighing it in his hand.

“Very heavy!” replied the workers.

“This bowl was made here by Ahmad;”—he gestured to a man behind him who nodded—“it is…”

“Very light!”

“Yes,” said the manager. “Handmade alabaster works are light and translucent.” He held up the lighter bowl so that it covered a bare light bulb above his head. The light glowed gently through the stone. “Machine made bowls are not. So, you can see that…”

“Handmade is much better! Thank you for coming to our shop!” The workers had the last word as we filed into the store to see what they had for sale.

As theatrical and entertaining as the pitch was, and as attractive as many of the items were, we were not interested in carrying stone home in our luggage. After a polite perusal of their wares, Vibs and I retreated to the bus to wait for the rest of our group. As we waited, a second bus pulled up next to ours and disgorged its load of tourists in front of an adjacent stoneworking shop. To our amusement, the same workers’ theater was staged for that group of tourists, but in Italian! I wondered where in Luxor I would find the marketing firm that sold this promotional package to the owners of the alabaster shops, or maybe it was passed along by word of mouth, so to speak.

Our final stop was the temple at Memnon, famous for being all that remains of the largest temple complex of the ancient world, larger even than Karnak (which is the largest surviving temple complex). The two statues depict Amenhotep III, who ruled as a “god-king” about 1400 BC. The statues were heavily damaged by the 27 BC earthquake that did extensive damage to ancient Egypt. In later years, this area was subjected to frequent flooding making the temple site unusable, but the statues have remained. For 3400 years. The ravages of time on the colossi are quite evident but there is still an impression of grandeur and gravity about them. Interestingly, the stone for one of the statues was transported from a place near present-day Cairo, rather than from Aswan as the stone work for so many other ancient Egyptian temples and statues was. And because of its size—some 700 tons(!)—it was transported overland, not by river barge… Were these people nuts?

Our time on the Nile had come to an end. We returned to the ship, gathered our belongings and took a cab to the Luxor Airport to await our flight back to Cairo. Fortunately, the airport is quite modern and we were able to enjoy a good cappuccino and a meal before our one-hour flight. We reached Cairo before midnight and tucked ourselves into a bed that didn’t have water underneath it.

On the Nile Again

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Shortly before we turned the lights out last night, the Ra II slipped its moorings at Kom Ombo and resumed its stately journey down the Nile toward Esne. We sailed along until about 3 AM when I was awakened by the sound of the gangplank being ratcheted down. I peered out between the curtains but was unable to see anything in the dark. We had stopped moving and at that hour there was nothing to do but go back to sleep.

In the morning, we emerged from our stateroom to find ourselves moored to the riverbank with no proper jetty in sight. One long green corrugated hose snaked down the bank and was connected to a fitting in the hull, either carrying something onto the ship or removing something from it. At breakfast, we learned that we had arrived at a lock on the river at Esne and that ships were awaiting their turn to traverse the lock. Shortly after breakfast, the gangplank was retrieved and we set off down the river again. About an hour later, we approached the lock system and slowed to a crawl. Entering the lock was a tricky business since there was very little leeway on either side of ship. We even bumped one side of the lock as the captain maneuvered us into place; a few feet only separated us from the closed gate at the stern and a second ship in front of us.

Once the gates of the lock closed, we were lowered about twenty feet to the river level below the dam. The entire process took less than an hour and we were soon traveling at speed again. The Nile slid past and we spent most of the morning sitting under an awning on the sun deck, reading and watching the subtle shifts in the landscape as we traveled. We encountered few boats moving in up river, but there were occasional commercial and pleasure craft.

One such was a “dahabiyah,” all white, being towed by a small, similarly painted tugboat. This was the sort of conveyance that our friend Flo Nightingale would have made her trip in—minus the tugboat. I wondered how much different an experience that must have been. It looked to be a comfortable enough boat, but she reports that in addition to her three traveling companions, there were numerous crew members responsible for sailing or rowing or towing the boat along. It must have been quite cozy and her less than affectionate references to the companionship of various rodent and insect life forms made me appreciative of the comforts of our ship.

Around noon, the landscape underwent a dramatic change; through the haze—which was surprising as much for its presence as for its heaviness—we saw a range of reddish mountains looming on the east bank. Here the Nile made a grand sweep to the west as it sought a way around this impediment to its progress. At times the mountains seemed close enough to touch, appearing right behind the narrow strip of green that bordered the river. Soon the mountains receded, however and we continued our float, taking in the landscape and relaxing. We spent a great deal of the morning topside alternately reading and taking in the view of the landscape. Everyday activities were being carried out in the small settlements we passed along the way. I had the sense that what we viewed as a bucolic environment had quite a different meaning for those who were scratching out a living and dependent on the river for their existence in a manner totally different from the cruise boat operators. Draft animals were everywhere; women did their laundry at the river’s edge, as countless generations of women before them had no doubt done. Children in hand-me-down galabiyahs herded animals or ran through the fields, some waving as we passed; others, apparently long since inured to sight of wealthy foreigners staring at them, went about their business without so much as a glance our way.

Nile River Cruise Christmas 2009 from Karl Schaefer on Vimeo.

In late afternoon, Luxor hove into view and we tied up at the Eastmar dock, some distance south of the city proper. After the ship was secured, we all trooped aboard a bus and set off for the famous Temple of Karnak. This temple stood and was active for over a thousand years. It is the largest pharaonic temple complex in Egypt. Numerous Pharaohs and their Greek and Roman successors renovated, rebuilt and expanded its precincts over time so that one sees a number of different architectural styles. The most spectacular element is the colonnaded hall of the main temple. The massive pillars are carved to resemble lotus plants, the capitals curving out gracefully at the top. The entire complex covers at least ten acres and includes a “sacred lake” where priests would ritually cleanse themselves before entering the inner sanctum. There’s an obelisk, too, one of two that originally stood here, their pyramidal tops sheathed in a mixture of gold and silver that brilliantly reflected the sun’s rays in honor of the sun god worshipped in this place. One of the obelisks was toppled and the second walled up out of spite and ironically preserved for us because of one ruler’s jealousy of a predecessor. Funny, how history works…

From Karnak, we took the bus to a small gallery where papyrus is made and used to create wall hangings. This feature of the guided tour biz is now obviously a given; each company, it seems, makes deals with local artisanal outfits to try and improve their business. There are so many “touts” on the streets of tourist venues selling cheap knockoffs and reproductions that people making the real thing must have trouble competing. Not only that, but the junk sold on the streets gives the genuine articles a bad reputation. In addition, when one visits factories or workshops to purchase perfume, papyrus, or other such things, the tour operators guarantee “no hard sells and no hassles,” a big advantage for tourists who are harangued every step of their way to and from historical sites. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t dogged while you’re in the shop; they just don’t push stuff in your face all the time.

Seeing papyrus made was very interesting and the person doing the demonstration was well informed and competent. Thin slices of the pulp are cut and then two layers of the slices are laid at right angles to one another. The resulting sheets are put in a press to remove all the water and then placed in the air to dry. It was interesting to learn that while the spongy center of the plant was used for making writing material, the tougher outside of the plant stalk was also used for making shoes and other items of wear that needed to be durable. Unfortunately, while we were told that the art work on the papyrus sheets was “original,” all of it was pseudo-ancient Egyptian featuring clichéd figures of gods and goddesses and faux cartouches. Most of it was way too gaudy for us and no amount of subtle pressure was going to persuade us to buy.

As we exited the papyrus shop, the sun was setting. Our final stop of the day was to be Luxor Temple, a building at the opposite end of town from Karnak, and linked to it by a two kilometer long avenue lined on either side with goat-headed sphinxes. Two thousand of them, they estimate, from one end of the processional way to the other. Only part of this avenue has been excavated so the number is approximate, I think.

Like the temple of Kom Ombo on the previous day, the Temple of Luxor was awash in artificial light by the time we arrived. A few other busloads of people were here as well, Navigating the uneven paving stones, climbing over thresholds and jostling other people while trying to appreciate the grandeur of the ruins was a challenge, but as with Kom Ombo, the presence of so many lent a festive air to the evening. One could almost imagine one’s self in the midst of ancient revelers celebrating the annual symbolic marriage between the god an goddess whose homes these temples were. Throughout our visit, we were watched over by four statues of our friend Ramesses II, he of the supersized ego.

A short bus ride brought us back to the Ra II, where we enjoyed a hearty dinner and a brief musical entertainment before tiptoeing off to bed. Tomorrow is our last day in Upper Egypt and we need our rest before tackling the last excursion.

Cruising the Nile

December 31, 2009
This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Saturday, 26 December, 2009

Aboard the “Ra II,” somewhere between Kum Ombo and Esne, Upper Egypt

I haven’t written in a more than a week and it’s time to catch up—again. There are several reasons I haven’t sat down to post a blog in a while although I have been at the keyboard for other reasons. The pace of work at the library has picked up considerably now that my time there is dwindling and all of a sudden there are all these things that ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY MUST BE DONE before I return to the States. On top of that, Vibs has arrived and we are taking a long-planned vacation together. We are in the midst of that trip and that is the other reason I haven’t been posting. Until now.

Vibs arrived in Alexandria on the 19th and we spent about four days wandering around and seeing a few sights in that city. Mostly we walked the neighborhood streets and allowed her time to adjust to the time difference, a big adjustment as I well know. One morning we went out to the peninsula known as Ras al-Tin to tour the citadel of Qait Bey, the Mamluk ruler of Egypt who constructed the citadel in the 1480’s on the foundations of the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria. We went to dinner at the famous Fish Market restaurant one evening and had a memorable feast followed by the best Arabic coffee I’ve ever drunk. Another day my Arabic tutor took us to al-Muntaza, the site of King Farouk’s summer palace, where we walked part of the extensive gardens along the seacoast and returned to downtown Alexandria for yet another meal of fish.

Last Thursday, we boarded a train for Cairo, spent Christmas Eve in an airport hotel, and then took an early morning flight to Aswan, the last major city in southern Egypt before you reach the Sudanese border (still another five hundred miles farther south) and the site of the famous high dam built under Nasser. In Aswan, we boarded the cruise ship “Ra II,” and began our four day trip down the Nile (that is, North) to Luxor. This is a very touristy thing to do and, next to the obligatory visit to the pyramids at Giza, probably the most quintessential Egyptian experience for non-Egyptians.

Vibs had received a gift of Florence Nightingale’s account of her trip up the Nile in 1849-50 (Letters from Egypt: a Journey on the Nile 1849-1850) and brought it along with her so I could read it. The differences between Flo’s experience and ours are astounding and so disparate as to belong to two different universes. Hers was truly an Adventure, with a capital “A” while ours is merely part of a huge commercial operation which brings billions of foreign exchange into Egypt every year. This is not to say that the present-day cruise has any less of a romantic air about it; it’s just a lot more organized and much less dangerous than it was 160 years ago. There are 350 cruise ships plying the Nile today, with an average passenger load of 100 people. That means that at any given time, about 35,000 people (not including crews) are floating on the river. Multiply that number by the number of cruises conducted each year (an average cruise is between three and seven days in length) and you get an idea of how many people do this each year. Inside a month, all of Des Moines could be accommodated.

Most of the ships are essentially floating hotels, with restaurants, bars, night clubs, swimming pools, hot tubs and all the “mod cons” you could want, even a laundry service. The “Ra II” is a pleasant ship with nice staterooms and an airy top deck, part of which is covered with canvas awnings and part of which is open to the sun. We boarded around ten AM on Christmas Day and settled in. Our guide, Osama (no, not THAT Osama) told us what the plan was and what our options were. We were invited to join a tour of Aswan, including the open air market, but declined in favor of a walk along the Corniche and a nap in the afternoon. Dinner was very pleasant and we had a good sleep in our narrow berths. Sunday morning we began our itinerary with a coach tour. Our first stop was the Temple of Philae, part of which was constructed by one of the Ptolemies, the successors to Alexander the Great, who ruled Egypt until the Roman conquest around 40 BC (Cleopatra, Marc Anthony, Julius Caesar and all that…). The Ptolemies had a policy of currying favor with the native Egyptians by honoring the gods that they worshipped and even building temples in their honor. The Temple at Philae is one such building, dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, to whom the island of Philae was sacred.

Like Abu Simbel, the Isis Temple was taken apart and reconstructed because its original location was covered by the waters of Lake Nasser, the lake formed by the high dam. The difference between this temple and the monument of Abu Simbel is that the Temple of Isis had already been inundated due to the construction of an earlier dam by the British in 1902. It lay underwater for seventy years until Egypt asked UNESCO to rescue it (along with sixteen other historic buildings) when the high dam was being built. So a coffer dam was constructed around its island, the water pumped out and the entire structure cut into 40,000 pieces and reassembled on an adjacent island above the new water level. The water and silt stains are still visible on its sandstone blocks.

One reaches the island by small boats, either sail or motor powered. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours wandering around the site in the early morning cool, taking pictures and trying to make sense of the hieroglyphics and pictures that adorn the walls of the larger structures that make up this temple complex. The Romans followed the Greek practice of showing respect to the ancient Egyptian deities and added their own buildings to the assemblage. Thus, you have a range of architectural styles and traditions within a relatively small area and another example of the sort of syncretism that so deeply characterizes the culture of this part of the world.

A short trip back across the waters of Lake Nasser brought us to the bus, which we boarded for our next stop, the High Dam across the Nile. Construction of the High Dam ended the cycle of yearly Nile floods and corralled the famous Nile crocodiles behind it. The dam was built with United Nations support and initial assistance from the US, but when the US wanted political influence in return for its investment, Nasser said “no, thanks” and nationalized the Suez Canal to help pay for its construction. That precipitated the 1956 Sinai War and led to an invitation to the Russians to come and complete the work. They remained until Anwar Sadat “invited” them to leave in the late 1970’s, I think. The dam is an impressive structure and we enjoyed the fifteen minutes we were allowed by the security forces to look around.

Our final stop in Aswan (the name means “the elephants,” incidentally, and is taken from a rock formation on the northern end of Elephantine Island, the site of the original settlement here. The formation resembles a herd of elephants when viewed from afar) was a perfumery, or rather an essential oils factory. Now, I had already had some experience with this business and was a bit wary, but the group was treated with respect and was given no hard sell to purchase anything. We were presented with small samples of about seven of the fragrances made by the firm and were then offered a variety of “package deals” featuring different essential oils in different sizes. We actually found a few that we liked and bought three: sandalwood, myrrh, and peppermint. Aroma therapy for Winter in Des Moines.

Our final experience of the morning was a felucca trip around the northern end of Elephantine Island to an adjacent island called Gazirat al-Bustan, once the property of Lord Kitchener. On the way, we sailed past the mausoleum of the Aga Khan, the religious leader of the Isma`ili Shi`ites (also known as “seveners), who recognize the Aga Khan as their hereditary spiritual leader. To the rest of us, he is best known as Rita Hayworth’s father-in-law. The tomb lies across from Gazirat al-Bustan, the garden island, where we now disembarked. The gardens are home to variety of trees and shrubs collected and planted by Lord Kitchener. Now quite mature, the plantings create a very elegant colonial specimen garden on the northern part of the island. It was most pleasant to spend an hour or so amidst the shade of palms and tamarinds, among the colors of bougainvillea, hibiscus and other flowering plants. At the end of our visit, a motor boat took us around the southern tip of Elephantine Island and back to our ship’s berth.

We returned to the ship in time for lunch and, while we were eating, we set sail for our next stop, Kom Ombo, a temple sitting right on the east bank of the Nile about forty miles north of Aswan. The ship’s progress was sedate and watching the river slide past under the afternoon sun was a delightful, even serene, experience. The importance of the narrow strip of green running alongside the Nile through desert becomes much clearer when seen from the deck of a Nile liner. The cultivated area is limited to the narrow flood plain adjacent to the river and the proximity of the arid lands is emphasized by the high sand-covered bluffs beyond. It is somewhat of a surprise that human habitation seems to be ever present here, but when one considers that there is no place far from the river where human life can be sustained, it makes sense that everywhere the banks allow for cultivation, people will be found.

In late afternoon, we round a bend and find the Temple of Kom Ombo awaiting us on the eastern bank of the river. Our sister ship, the “Ra I” is already tied up at the shore. By the time we tie up and debark, night has fallen and we set off up the street at a dog trot in order to gain entrance before the place is closed for the night. Kom Ombo Temple was dedicated to two ancient Egyptian deities, Sobek, the crocodile god, and Horus, the “good doctor.” Egyptians of the pharaonic times (and perhaps later) came here to pray for healing and to have their maladies treated by the priest-doctors in residence. Here, as at Philae, the Greeks and Romans renovated, rebuilt, and refurbished the structures comprising the temple.

By the time we arrived at the site, the sun had set and the temple was illuminated by a lighting system that threw dramatic shadows everywhere. There were several boatloads—literally—of people there and the crowds added a festive air to the visit. The ancient building became less of a lonely relic and more of a vibrant, living space because of the presence of so many. The scale and power of these places is breathtaking; one cannot but marvel at the industry and commitment necessary to undertake construction projects of this magnitude using only hand tools and the most basic of mechanical aids—the pulley, the inclined plane, and the wheel.

After an hour or so poking around the ruins, a leisurely walk brought us back to the Ra II, where we enjoyed a cocktail in the lounge and then a tasty dinner. Coffee on the sun deck, gazing over the sleeping Nile and Kom Ombo bathed in soft light brought our first full day on the Nile to a relaxing end.

Busy, Busy, Busy, But With a Break

December 17, 2009
This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Monday, 14 December 2009

After months of waiting, I finally got to do some actual research on my block prints. Working with Gamal Husni at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, who has a great connection (his uncle is the Egyptian Minister of Culture), I was able to get an appointment to see the block prints at the Gayer Anderson Museum. I had also made arrangements to visit the French Institute in Cairo where, I had recently learned, yet another Arabic block print lay waiting for me.

I spent Saturday hanging out with Ginger and Dominique, going for a walk, and just kicking back after our excursion to the pyramids the previous day. That evening, we met up with a former teacher of Dominique’s from the University of Nebraska, and went to a Korean (yes, a Korean) restaurant for dinner. The food was good and the conversation lively. Brian, Dominique’s printmaking teacher, was a beer fan, so we all consumed our fill of Stella, the Egyptian Budweiser, as we sat and talked. During dinner, Marie Legendre of the French Institute called me and told me that I would be able to see their block print the next day. That put me in a great frame of mind at the end of the day.

Sunday morning, I hailed a cab near the apartment and set off for the institute which sits near Tahrir Square on the southern edge of downtown. The taxi driver, to my surprise, knew exactly where it was and dropped me at the front gate. Marie was there to greet me and to introduce me to Sylvie Denoix, the Director of Studies at the institute. I was ushered into her office and we spent a few minutes talking about my project. I thanked her for her gracious offer to allow me to examine the artifact and she told me that they would be able to allow me an hour and a half with it. If I needed more time, I would need official permission. I told her that that amount of time would probably suffice.

From the director’s office, I was escorted upstairs to the archive where two other people were at work. There was a chair and a bit of table space on which I could work. The box containing the paper was placed on the table. I opened it. Inside was a terribly wrinkled and fragmented document with a large decorative text and design at one end and several dozens of lines of smaller script below it. There were actually three pieces of paper and I was afraid to handle it too much lest it tear into even smaller pieces. Marie brought out another smaller box and extracted yet another piece of paper from it. That piece had been lying amongst a bunch of papyrus fragments and she explained that it “probably” belonged to the piece I was looking at, but for some reason had been placed in a separate container. After looking at the smaller piece, I offered the opinion that it was indeed part of the larger amulet, so the smaller piece was placed together with the others in the larger box.

It was nearly impossible to read any more than a word or two of the text here and there, but I took rough measurements and wrote up a prose description. The people working in the room were very helpful; when I asked how I could go about requesting an image of the block print, they directed me to the institute’s web site where I was able to fill out an electronic request form. Marie asked if I wanted to wait until the piece had been conserved and made easier to read and I said yes, but that I would like a photo of it “as is” for purposes of comparison. She told me that since I was interested in it, she would place it on the priority list for the conservators to work on. Ah, the French! Magnifique!

From the institute, I walked around the corner and got another cab and had the driver deposit me outside the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. The Gayer Anderson Museum, also known as the “House of the Cretan Woman,” lies right up against the wall of the mosque at the southeast corner. I walked to the gate and told the tourist cop there that I had an appointment with Ehab Sedrak, the museum director. He made a phone call and in a flash I was being led up the stairs to the director’s office. The director recognized me from my previous visit and invited me to sit down. He was engaged in some sort of business with three other guys and I was offered tea or coffee while I waited for him to finish with them. As is the case in an Egyptian office, people flowed in and out on a regular basis, often stealing a minute or two of the director’s time and attention from the other supplicants in his office.

Eventually, however, Mr. Sedrak finished his business with the three men and engaged me in a brief interview. What was it, again, I wanted to see? For what purpose? Did I know what I was looking for? I answered all his questions as directly as I could in my third-grade Arabic and he seemed satisfied. Then he asked me what my research was about. I told him I was interested in medieval Arabic printing history and said that I believed that it was a story that needed telling.

“So, you’re just interested in the objects as evidence of printing, is that correct?”

“Yes,” I responded. “That is the primary focus of my research.”

He pulled a sheaf of papers out of his desk and pushed it toward me. On some of the pages there were dozens of thumbnail photos of amulets made of stone and metal and bearing Arabic inscriptions.

“I’m working on amulets, too,” he said, leaning back in his swivel chair. “I am interested in them because they have to do with magic, you know.”

“Yes,” I replied. “The ones on paper also have connections with that practice.”

He was obviously concerned that my interest in the amulets was going to encroach on his “territory.” I convinced him that while I knew that the amulets contained “magical” text, that was not why I wanted to see them. I told him that European and American scholars had been studying the same field for some time and that there were several published works on the topic.

Whatever it was that I said to him, he seemed to be reassured that I was no threat to his study, so he directed his assistant and a women named Azzah, who seems to be a sort of curator and museum guide, to take me upstairs to the room where the amulets were stored. The room, on the top floor, had been Gayer Anderson’s library and a set of glass fronted bookshelves sat atop a row of wooden cabinets on one side of the room. We entered and the windows on one side of the room were immediately thrown open to admit some air. Next, the factotum was called to help open the appropriate cabinet, for not only were the cabinet doors padlocked, but each was sealed with a wire seal and wire cutters were necessary to remove that before the locks could be opened. We waited while the man located his tools; I took a seat on a diwan on the opposite side of the room and got out my description forms, a pencil, my plastic ruler and my magnifying glass. While I was doing this, we were joined by not one but two cops, one in the uniform of the Tourist Police and the other in plainclothes. I never realized that I represented such a potential threat to museum security.

Finally, after at least a quarter of an hour, during which the director’s assistant proceeded to smoke a cigarette and grind out the butt on the floor(!), the pliers were found and the padlocks opened. I gave the assistant and Ms. Azzah the list of numbers I had and they proceeded to search for the correct folders. The first examination failed to locate the folders, so they tried again. Finally, one, then two and finally three were found. The fourth one took a bit longer. The first one was a problem since it wasn’t a block print. The director had already told me that the number of one of the items did not match the description of the item entered in their inventory, so he had changed the number (rather arbitrarily it seems) to one that more closely matched the other three. I told them that what I was looking at wasn’t a block print and asked them to see the next one.

The second, third and fourth ones were indeed the pieces I was hoping to see and I worked on my descriptions and measurements with the assistant director peering over my left shoulder and Ms. Azzah peering over my right. Several times, as I was using my mechanical pencil point to help count lines, I was admonished not to touch the paper with the lead (which was, in fact, retracted). Someone in the room must have been feeling faint for, in addition to the wind blowing in through the open window, a floor fan had been turned on and the paper artifacts were flapping about in a most un-conservation-minded manner. I was afraid one of them would sail out into the courtyard.

Nothing like that happened, fortunately, and I finished my examination of the three pieces shortly after noon. We then returned to the director’s office where I was again asked to take a seat and offered another cuppa. Over my tea, the director asked that I provide him with a copy of my book, which I told him I was only too happy to do (while I was doing an internal accounting of how much this visit would cost me. Not cheap…) In truth, I thought that since they have a collection of block prints, they should, indeed, have a copy of the book so that they might provide future scholars with a bit more information about their collection. I got the director’s e-mail and the postal address of the museum and promised to send the book and any publication resulting from my visit to him. Finally, he asked me if I had taken pictures. I blinked and said no. I didn’t realize that I would be allowed to take pictures.

“You’ve got a letter from the Minister and a note from Zahi Hawwas,” he said with a dismissive wave of his cigarette. “You can do anything you want.”

Okay. Wish you had told me sooner. I promised to return when I had more time and Mr. Sedrak said that I would be allowed to photograph the pieces then. We shook hands, I thanked his staff and took my leave.

I still had some time left in the day, so I asked my cab driver to drop me off on Qasr al-Ayni Street near Garden City. The Egyptian Geographical Museum is located there, adjacent to the Majlis al-Shura, the Cairo City Council building and I had read that they also had a block print. Being in the general neighborhood, I decided to make an impromptu visit. The museum is, as I said, right next to the city council building and is subject to some serious security. I walked through the one open gate and entered a small building where several people were chatting with the guards. When my presence was acknowledged, I was asked what my business was and, when I said that I would like to visit the museum, one cop took my passport and I was handed an identity tag. My briefcase was examined and I was passed along to another guard outside the museum, He shook my hand and escorted me inside, where the gatekeeper had me leave my bag and directed me upstairs.

At the top of the stairs was another guard of sorts; he asked what I wanted to see and I told him, “A document. Here’s the accession number.”

“Which book?” he asked with a puzzled look.

“Not a book, a piece of paper. An old piece of paper.”

He was obviously stumped, so he asked me to wait and went off to find someone who might be able to help. After a short time, he returned and asked me to follow him through a set of double doors into a large open room. The ceiling was covered in inlaid wood and was magnificent. To one side was an auditorium with ranks of folding chairs climbing up several levels. On the other side of the room, the one closest to the street, was the library. Three rows of barrister’s bookcases, with glass doors to keep out the dust, extended the width of the room. There, halfway along one such row, we found a young man who asked my business. I told him what I was looking for and gave him the accession number. He invited me to sit at one of the reading tables while he went off in search of someone who might know about the thing I sought.

While I waited, I browsed the bookshelves and read the plaques mounted on the walls. Over the doors were carved inscriptions in gold leaf; some were in Arabic while others were in French. The ones in French were carved in such a way as to resemble Arabic letters. Very Victorian (the building was erected in 1875, I learned from one inscription) and very cool, actually.

My latest guide finally returned and told me that the piece was actually not in the library, but in the museum, in a display case. I was welcome to look at it, but if I wanted to examine it, I would need to send a letter to the Society’s president. I told him I would be happy to do that, but I would need his address.

“No,” he said, “He’s right downstairs, about to leave. If we hurry you can meet him.”

We raised dust as we skipped down the staircase and managed to catch Dr. Muhammad Safi al-Din Abu al-`Izz just as he was about to depart. My guide had already given the good doctor my business card and he greeted me in English.

“I understand you speak Arabic,” he said as he shook my hand. “You must come back so we can sit in my office and talk about your work. Call me and arrange a time. Unfortunately, I have an appointment just now.”

I thanked him for his offer and said that I would, indeed, be in touch. As he left, my guide showed me into the museum, a dusty room filled with cultural artifacts of all sorts and all ages. The vitrine containing the block print was up against one wall at the back of the room, dimly lit and at an angle so that reading it was nearly impossible. It was definitely a block print, though. The museum curator, who had been there, he told me, since 1976, showed me around proudly, pointing out other kinds of amulets. One case contained a couple dozen pieces of Bedouin jewelry with the tubes and boxes that would have contained amulets like the one I wanted to see. I asked him if these had been opened to see if anything was inside. He said yes, and that nothing had been found. The last piece he showed me was a long amulet on parchment, framed behind glass, which he said had been given to the museum (if I understood his Arabic correctly) by Haile Selassie, the former ruler of Ethiopia.

Having secured the museum’s postal address and the president’s phone number, I thanked my hosts and headed for home. While I hadn’t seen everything I had hoped to see, I felt that I had made significant inroads into the pike of tasks I had before me with this aspect of my project. People were generally very helpful, in some cases some helpful that they were a hindrance, but today, who was I to complain.

That evening, all the members of the Fulbright contingent were to be the guests of the Lohofs. It was their annual holiday reception and we were going to be treated to the director’s customary gracious hospitality and good food. Before we set off for their place, however, our friend Jamie from the desert campout had invited us for a beer and to see his apartment, which was in a houseboat moored on the west bank of the Nile opposite Zamalek. We had seen these houseboats sitting along the riverbanks and there were occasional ads on the Cairo Scholars e-mail list from people either looking for such accommodations or roommates to share one. We had arranged to meet Jamie at about five, so shortly before then Ginger and I set out by cab. Access to the houseboats is made through gateways along the sidewalk next to the river. The gates are numbered but the numbers are often difficult to see and we missed Jamie’s address on the first swing past in the cab. Rather than have the cab make another loop around, we hopped out and walked back along the street until we found number 75. There was no bell or knocker apparent and the gate was locked. Just then, however, Jamie appeared on the sidewalk and let us in. We had made the inexcusable faux pas of actually showing up on time and Jamie hadn’t had a chance to tidy up.

We walked down a set of stairs into a very pleasant garden and then across a gangplank to the boat. Wires and pipes hung above the water and connected the boat to utilities. Jamie’s quarters were on the upper deck and comprised the entire length of the vessel. Rooms connected end to end and windows provided views of the river and the high rises of Zamalek on the opposite bank.

The sun was just setting as we sat down on the roofed open deck at one end and clinked glasses. The three of us spent a very pleasant early evening talking and relaxing. Joelle Ellis called after about an hour and joined us. We continued our conversations as the darkness gathered and the city lights took over from the sun. Party boats, some blasting recorded music and sporting festive lights, glided by from time to time, but the overall impression and experience was one of peace and quiet right near the center of town. The only drawbacks, we learned from our host, were that the houseboats were drafty in the Winter and they had the reputation of being venues for illicit assignations. The residents thus were viewed by some as possessing questionable morals, regardless of whether they had them or not. Morals, that is, not assignations.

Shortly after seven, Joelle, Ginger and I rose and, thanking Jamie for his hospitality, set off for the Fulbright reception. When we arrived, the party was in full swing. Both students and scholars mingled and flowed among the various rooms, eating and talking. The atmosphere was relaxed and congenial and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. This was the last hurrah for 2009, since the university semesters are drawing to a close and those Fulbrighters who are teaching are preparing to travel or take some down time. The students, too, are looking forward to free time to travel and explore. Even the library is in maintenance mode these days, with librarians taking unused vacation time before the end of the year. I’m hoping that there will be one more group activity before I leave, but that seems unlikely. I really like these folks and it has been a blast getting to know them and to spend time with them. The fact that I have only four weeks left here is beginning to sink in, but it’s still a bit hard to grasp.

Pyramid Scheme

December 16, 2009
This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Another weekend in Cairo. I came down from Alexandria yesterday afternoon so I would be able to join fellow Fulbrighters on a day trip to see the pyramids. The OLD pyramids. The monsters in Giza are the most famous ones but there are many more. Today we were to visit three sites important to the history of pyramid building ancient Egypt: Saqqara, Memphis, and Dahshoura. Dr. Chahinda Karim is to be our guide again.

Dominique Ellis and Ginger da Costa have offered to host me for the weekend but before I go to their place, I have arranged to meet Mike McMullen in Sakanat Maadi for dinner. He had also offered the hospitality of his home, but after considering the matter for a while, it made more sense for me to stay closer to downtown. There were several things I wanted to do this weekend and they all involved places near the center of town, so I opted to stay in Zamalek. Mike and I met at the Metro station in Sakanat Maadi and walked a couple of blocks along Street 9, the main drag in that part of town, to Lucille’s, an up-scale burger joint that served a variety of American-style foods. At 6:30 in the evening, the place was humming, filled with groups of Egyptian teens from wealthy local families and a few ex-pats. We found a table and ordered chicken enchiladas.

While our food was being prepared, Mike and I talked about my work and his teaching sociology at AUC. The end of the semester is looming for students here, too, and students being students, there is the familiar litany of excuses and pleadings for more time and claims of extenuating circumstances that warrant grants of special consideration. We also talked about plans for the intersession; Mike is returning to the States to bring his wife and two young daughters to Egypt. They will stay with him for the remainder of his grant period. I enjoy these opportunities to learn about the other Fulbright scholars; there is so much interesting work being done and I think that each of our individual experiences is enriched by the ability to share perspectives and insights in circumstances such as these.

Our meals were acceptable and we were both hungry. Mike had come directly from AUC and, like me, was in need of refueling. We talked over our meals and lingered for a cup of tea afterward. Nearly three hours had passed by the time we paid the bill. Mike walked me back to the Metro station and we said good night. I caught a northbound train for Tahrir Square and from there took a cab across the bridge to Zamalek. Dominique and Ginger were waiting for me and we sat and talked for a couple of hours before heading off to bed.

Friday morning, Ginger and I flagged down a cab outside the Marriott Hotel near her place and took the short ride to the Fulbright office in Dokki. We had been instructed to arrive at 7 AM, but at that hour we were the first ones there and waited nearly a quarter of an hour before anyone else showed up. By quarter to eight, however, the ground floor room was densely peopled. At Hend’s signal, we grabbed the customary “breakfast boxes” and heading to the bus. As soon as we cleared central Cairo, Dr. Karim picked up the microphone at the front of the bus and began to give us a brief overview of the ancient Egyptian philosophy of life, but more importantly, of death, since the many of the monuments we would see today were the focal point of that life event.

As we rode along a two-lane road bordered by a canal on one side and rows of palm trees standing in narrow fields on the other, she spoke of the duality that the ancient Egyptians saw in existence: that humans were animated by two forces, the “Ka” and the “Ba,” the soul and something like a “motive force.” A person needed both forces in order to exist on this plane. When one dies, the Egyptians believed, the Ka departs for the sky where it is judged. If it passes judgment, then it is rewarded with eternal life; if it does not pass, it is drowned in a celestial sea and is really dead. It is this second death that the Egyptians feared more than the first. If a soul (Ka) survived the judgment of the gods, then it could be reunited with its Ba again on Earth, but in order for that to happen, the Ka had to have a “home” to return to, where it could be reunited with its Ba. That was the reason for mummification and for the elaborate measures taken by the Pharaohs to assure that their bodies would survive until the resurrection. There was much more than that to the story: the one omnipotent god Amen, two sons, one good, one evil, the myth of creation, and so forth that were clearly the antecedents of the biblical stories with which we are familiar, but this should give you an idea of the basic elements of that world view.

By the time we arrived at our first stop, we had a much better understanding of what we were looking at. Saqqara is several kilometers south along the Nile from Giza. There are a number of pyramids here, smaller by far than those at Giza, but important for the light they shed on the development of Egyptian funerary architecture. Before the pyramids, the Egyptians buried their dead—at least the important ones—in “mastabas.” A mastaba is a sort of like a house for a soul.

The one we visited here, the Tomb of Ti, was built into the ground and constructed of dressed stone. Ti was a mid-level official in the Old Kingdom (5th Dynasty) and he and his wife were buried in this structure when they died. One entered through a narrow portal into an open square bounded by a narrow colonnaded portico. In the center of the open space was a rustic stone stairway that led underground. A narrow opening on one side of the portico led to a set of rooms. The first, at the end of a short passage, was a sort of shrine where one would leave offerings of food and drink to sustain the soul in the afterlife. There was a low platform at one end of the room on which such offerings would be placed. This was in front of a false door, through which the soul might pass in order to partake of the offerings.

The most striking feature of the space, however, was the carvings of hieroglyphics and scenes of life that covered all four walls from a height of about five feet all the way to the ceiling. The carvings were arranged in horizontal bands, each about eighteen inches high. In many places the original paint was still visible. The carvings showed people from all walks of life engaging in everyday activities. Contrary to the impression many of us have of these scenes, that they are formal and rigid in their depiction of life, the scenes here were full of movement and activity. There were people catching fish from a boat, carpenters sawing wood and building boats, farmers carrying poultry to market, a cow being milked, young boys running. Interspersed among these scenes, periodically, were larger carvings of the deceased with his symbol of power, a long staff. In one such scene, Ti’s wife kneels behind him, one hand affectionately grasping his calf. His son, kneeling in front of him, grasps the lower part of the staff Ti is holding, a clue to their relationship and to the son’s role in life. In the wall opposite the entrance are three triangular piercings. Looking through these one sees a space where statues of the deceased once stood. A copy of one is all that now remains.

A short distance back down the corridor is a second smaller room where the annual offerings of food and drink would have been stored. The walls of this room, too, bear elaborate carvings. Like those of the first room, Dr, Karim tells us, the carvings here were done using stone tools. The Egyptians of this time did not yet have the metallurgical skills to make metal stone carving tools. Amazing.

Now was the time for the adventurous part of our outing. We returned to courtyard and in small groups descended the stairs to the underground burial chamber. Now, I’m not fond of tight spaces, particularly when there are a few hundred tons of rock over my head, but I knew I had to see the inside of at least one of these structures. At the bottom of the stairs was a narrow square opening leading to a tunnel perhaps ten yards long. Crouching and crabbing my way along, I scrambled along the passage, which had dim lighting at intervals, until I came to a space about ten feet square where I could stand up. The room was hewn out of solid rock and there wasn’t much headroom. There was another crawl space on the other side of this room and we had to resume our ungainly postures as we waddled through that. The second passage was a little shorter and we emerged into a second room with a ceiling about ten feet high. On a wide rock shelf stood an empty sarcophagus, the lid pushed back so that one could peer in. The corpse of the deceased had long since disappeared, but there was no way to get that great stone box out except in pieces. After a short look around, the group re-emerged under its own power, unlike the original inhabitant.

We hopped back on the bus and took a short ride to another tomb in the same park. To the West of Ti’s tomb lies an assemblage of structures known as the Complex of Pepi II (6th Dynasty—around 2200 BC). This complex contains not only Pepi’s pyramid, but those of three of his wives and the remains of some temples as well. Pepi’s pyramid is built of limestone, so much of it still stands; the smooth outer covering, though, was long ago pilfered for building materials. There was access to this pyramid as well; an opening at ground level led to a ramp some one hundred feet long that led down through the rock at a steep angle. The floor had been covered with wooden planks onto which lengths of hollow square metal bars had been bolted. These served as steps as one descended.

This passage wasn’t any bigger than the first one; in fact, Dr. Karim had told us that we would REALLY have to bend to get through it. I followed a small group of my colleagues underground. Along the ramp were several stone channels set into the passage walls. Once upon a time, these held granite slabs that blocked the ramp and supposedly kept thieves out. Obviously not as effective as the designers intended…

At the bottom of the ramp, we had to squeeze under a huge block of red granite which served as a lintel over the passageway. Its purpose was to bear the weight of the stones laid on top of it. All the stones. We were told that the granite came from Aswan, a couple thousand kilometers up the Nile. None of us was terrible reassured by the numerous cracks it showed, some of them looking as though they had been patched with chewing gum.

There were two rooms at the bottom; the one on the right was an antechamber. The walls bore hieroglyphics, carvings of the Pharaoh, and his cartouche. The ceiling, which was gabled (i.e. it had a peak), was covered with stars carved to look like sea stars, a reference to the mythical ocean out of which Earth was created as well as a representation of the night sky. The size of the blocks, like Volkswagen buses, was astounding and the fact that some of them hung lower in the room than others didn’t make me want to hang around too long.

Once everyone was back above ground, we ran the customary gauntlet of souvenir and post card vendors and re-boarded the bus. A short ride brought us to the Pyramid of Zozer (3rd Dynasty, about 2650 BC). The first real pyramid built in Egypt, it lies over an earlier mastaba. This pyramid is about 100 feet high and is currently having extensive preservation work carried out on it. No one is allowed to enter this tomb because it is considered dangerous. Even in the time of the 11th Dynasty, some fifty years after Zozer, it was beginning to collapse and pillars were added inside to stabilize it.

As with the other pyramids, there was a temple complex connected to this one. An architectural advisor to the archaeologist who worked here in the 1920’s found stones from the enclosure wall under the sands and restored part of it, together with a colonnade of forty-two pillars carved to resemble bundles of reeds. There is also a ceremonial ground with the remains of two raised platforms. It was here that the Pharaoh, after a reign of thirty years, had to perform a ritual called the “Heb Sed,” during which he had to run seven times around a circuit about an eighth of a mile in length in order to prove his fitness to continue governing. I wondered how old Teti, who is reputed to have lived to the age of 94, managed that. Maybe there was no time limit…

Leaving Saqqara, it was clear why the sandy verges of the desert were chosen for the pyramids. First, of course, there was a solid rock foundation to bear the enormous weight of these gigantic structures, but also, the fertile lands along the river were too valuable to be given up forever to dead folks. [DSCN0129] [DSCN0131] We now descended from the desert plateau to the irrigated lands along the Nile and headed to the remains of the ancient city of Memphis, the capital of the First Dynasty (ca. 3100 BC). Like most of the cities of those times, Memphis was built of mud brick, so very little remains except for the few buildings built of stone, statues and other stone monuments. Memphis stood here for three thousand years, until the time of Alexander the Great. The village of Mit Rihanah now occupies part of the site, and there is an outdoor museum that holds many of the important monumental artifacts found here.

There are a number of large stone jars, statues, stele with bearing inscriptions, and even a sphinx here, but the most spectacular object is an unfinished statue of Ramses II (19th Dynasty, 1304-1237 BC) which is more than forty feet long. Ramses II seems to have had an ego even bigger than his statues; his is one of the most common figures known. This example remained incomplete and is broken at mid-calf level. What is important about it is that it is in a very good state of preservation. It was never erected and lay covered by sand in its present location for thousands of years until it was discovered in 1820.

The skies had turned cloudy and the wind had picked up, so we were herded back to the bus once again and driven to the final stop on our pyramid tour, Dahshour. Here one sees the ultimate in conspicuous consumption as far as pyramids are concerned. Old Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty (ca. 2600-2500 BC), the immediate predecessor of Cheops (who had the pyramid at Giza constructed) built two of his three pyramids. Now, why anyone would need three pyramids, much less one, is quite beyond me, but here they were. The first, which we could view only from a distance since the road to it was unsuitable for our bus, is the so-called Bent Pyramid. From a distance, it looks like a mansard roof, with a change in the angle of its sides at about the mid-point of its elevation.

The reason for this is that an earlier pyramid built on the same model some ninety miles away collapsed while under construction. The engineers on the project concluded (wrongly, it turned out) that the reason for its collapse was the steep angle (53º) of the sides, so they altered the angle some ten degrees. Apparently unhappy with the funkiness of its design, Sneferu ordered the building of another pyramid, the one next to which we now found ourselves. [DSCN0138] It is known as the Red Pyramid because of the minerals in its stonework. It is over three hundred feet high and must have been even more impressive in its prime. Most of the finished limestone of the exterior disappeared long ago, as it did from many of the other pyramids.

The wind was carrying sprinkles of rain as we toured the grounds around the pyramid and those who had thought to bring along sweaters or jackets were commended by the rest of us for their foresight. We went to the east side where the temple complex had once stood and had a chance to perceive the monumental scale of the structure. On a plinth at the base of the pyramid stood its capstone, or “pyramidion,” which had been found, undamaged, at the base by the archaeologists who excavated here.

The interior of this pyramid was accessible to the adventurous so those wanting to see the inside climbed a crude staircase to a point about halfway up the north face and entered yet another tight fitting sloping passageway. One crabs along for about 150 feet to the first of two chambers at the base of the pyramid—if one wants to. I got about halfway down and was overwhelmed by the humidity and rather unpleasant odors wafting up from below, so I retreated. Seen one claustrophobia-inducing space, seen them all. Those intrepid souls who made it down and back emerged gasping for air and complaining of the noxious odors that greeted them in the basement. In true Egyptian fashion, there was a ventilating unit parked at an angle next to the entry, but it wasn’t connected to any electrical source and obviously hadn’t worked in some time. From our perch next to the entryway on the pyramid, we could see at least ten other pyramids dotting the landscape, all the way to Giza.

Having tempted the mummy’s curse three times in one day, we traveled back to Giza where we were rewarded for our intrepidness with another Fulbright custom: a meal at a great restaurant. Our stop today was Andrea’s, a place popular with both Egyptians and tourists. We climbed down from the bus on a street running alongside a recently dredged canal and walked into a very pleasant walled courtyard. Descending a short flight of stairs, we entered a courtyard paved with stone. Servers in white shirts, black trousers, and vests bustled about carrying trays or escorting guests to their seats. To the left of the entryway was a huge barbecue with a few dozen chickens and other poultry roasting above a bed of coals. Smoke billowed thickly, obscuring the white-coated chef who supervised the cooking. Just next to the rotisserie was a brick bread oven attended by half a dozen women baking pita. We were offered samples—for a token fee—as we approached and some people stopped to taste.

The restaurant had been awaiting our arrival and we were shown to our tables, two long rustic wooden affairs surrounded by equally rustic low chairs. The fare here was basic: three varieties of poultry (chicken, quail, or pigeon), rice, fresh bread, and the usual assortment of appetizers. We placed our orders and talked over plates of Baba Ghanoush, hoummus, pickled beets, stuffed vine leaves, and tahini salad. In short order, our meals arrived and we dug in. It was all good. For a while, it looked as though we might have to retreat to shelter since the wind and clouds built ominously, but the sky soon cleared and we finished out meals without getting wet.

Stomachs and heads full, we piled once more onto the bus and headed back to the Fulbright office. A day well spent and deserving of a relaxing evening during which we might reflect on it.

Baby Steps

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

After a week away, this week has seen a return to some sort of “normality” insofar as work is concerned. I have spent quite a bit of time “cybercommuting,” if that’s the proper term. There is a hiatus in the schedule of workshops until after the first of the year because of vacation schedules and holidays, but the selectors have been sending in a steady stream of collection development policy statements that I have had to edit and revise. That work I could do from home, and I did. Nermin Bahaa would forward the assignments to me, I would check them, make grammatical, stylistic and substantive corrections, indicate where necessary information was missing, offer suggestions for improvements and send them back to the selectors, via Nermin, for revision.

The submissions run the gamut from barely acceptable to nearly ready for publication. Some of the selectors—most in fact—got clued in during the individual sessions Nermin and I held with them and have understood the importance of writing good statements. Others seem not to have got it and need to get with the program. Fortunately, these latter are few in number; even fewer in number are those who haven’t even bothered to submit their plans. All I can do in those cases is to let their boss know they’re not doing their work.
Each statement takes from twenty to forty minutes to review, correct, comment upon and re-check.

While the English competency of the selectors is generally very good, there are the usual problems with grammar and syntax to deal with. Once those are taken care of, I try to impose a some sort of uniformity of style on the statements; that is one of the editor’s most important roles in putting together a collaborative product such as this. Do we refer to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as the Bibliothecea Alexandrina every time we write of it, or do we use shorthand? The Library, perhaps (my choice), or the “BA” (not my favorite)? How much uniformity of structure should I try to create in the various “summary statements?” I want each one to reflect the character and aspirations of that particular discipline while at the same time holding true to the aim of the policy as a whole. Not an easy task, I’m finding.

I have also met this week with two of the people from the instructional unit who are working on special projects. One is updating the unit’s web page and wanted my input about how much and what kind of information should be included there. Essentially, the purpose of the page is to provide information about the various information literacy courses offered by the department. The current page is very text heavy and lacks visual appeal. Apparently, the people who are responsible for the overall design and appearance of the library’s web pages don’t want pictures on pages from constituent library units. I suggested to the woman working on this project that she at least lighten up the text, limit her information to important points and generally make the page more useful to potential users by standardizing the entries for each class and class level. She will go back and make some changes and then we’ll meet again.

The second project involves the creation of a brochure containing information about the instructional schedule and courses offered. This will be made available to interested library users at the reference desks. The librarian working on this, Dalia Yousri, and I worked on design and layout. Here, again, I suggested that she include an illustration on the front of the brochure that might give people an idea of what sort of activity takes place in the courses. She will go and work on this and come back in a couple of weeks.
These meetings, in addition to my twice-weekly Arabic lessons have kept me busy enough and later today I’m off to Cairo again for four days to participate in another Fulbright tour and to attend the Commission’s Holiday party at the Lohofs’ on Sunday evening. Egypt Rail is going to see a considerable drop in revenue when I leave.

Dutch Treat

December 10, 2009
This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Monday, 30 November- Friday, 4 December 2009

Spending a week in Cairo when there was so much to do at the Bibliotheca seemed, on the one hand, to be an extravagance. On the other hand, however, the efficiency of staying in town when I was attending a two-day conference on Wednesday and Thursday—just two days hence—outweighed the cost of time and energy spent traveling back and forth between Cairo and Alexandria for that event. Belle Gironda, who teaches English at the American University of Cairo, and two friends had used my apartment for a visit to Alexandria while I was in the desert and, in return, she had offered me lodging at her place for the conference.

Belle’s digs were literally around the corner from Zohair’s place so after a leisurely breakfast with Zohair, I walked around to Belle’s place. Like Zohair’s, Belle’s place was in the district of Cairo known as Garden City, an area of meandering, shady streets sandwiched between the Corniche on the West and Qasr al-Ayni Street to the East. I said goodbye and thanks to Zohair at about 10:30 and walked around to Belle’s building. Garden City is home the embassies of many of the world’s more important countries. The U.S.’s pile is here, as are the Italian and Saudi missions among many others. Consequently, it is one of the safest neighborhoods in Cairo.

My route to Belle’s building was populated with at least three “official” police positions and God knows how many plainclothes types. The cops, dressed in their black winter uniforms, either sit on aluminum folding chairs with automatic weapons in their laps, in little concrete huts on some street corners, or stand behind thick sheets of steel mounted on wheels—sort of mobile walls—with their machine guns at the ready. Their presence is at once relaxed and forbidding. They smoke cigarettes, drink tea, or chat with their colleagues, and a friendly greeting is almost always returned with a sort of salute and a smile. Still, they’ve got those nasty guns. The only place I was challenged was at the entrance to Belle’s building and then only (I think) because the local office of UNESCO is housed on the ground floor.

I took the creaky elevator, big enough for maybe two people and complete with a folding seat for those who couldn’t stand for the short ride up five floors, to Belle’s apartment. She opened her door when I rang and ushered me into the customary huge space that foreigners seem to be assigned. I plunked my bags down in the guest room and we chatted for a while. After a cup of tea, I told her I needed to run some errands and headed out. My first stop was the Fulbright office which, the guard outside told me, was closed for the week. I had thought that the Eid was over, but apparently the Commission has a different schedule.

Okay. Next task was to find out what had happened to my dollar stipend which had gone missing somewhere between Des Moines and Cairo. Long story, not worth the retelling. In any case, a half hour spent at the bank provided no solution. In the ten days since the money was to have been transferred, there was not even a record of the transaction at my bank. Not good news since my account was dwindling rapidly. With two strikes against me, I decided to return to Belle’s apartment and work on my conference presentation. I had most of my ducks in a row with that, but I have learned that it always pays to have one more look. The rest of the afternoon was spent at the computer and by the time Belle returned from the university, I was feeling pretty good about my paper.

We ate a congenial dinner together and after washing up the dishes, Belle went off to her study and I settled into bed to read for a while before turning out the light.

On Tuesday morning I got up just as Belle left for work. I made myself a light breakfast and then worked on the computer for a while. I still owed Ginger da Costa the cost of the desert trip and made arrangements to meet her around noon to effect the reimbursement. We met at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek and I used one of their cash machines to get her her money. Having taken care of business, we decided to look for a place to have lunch. Ginger suggested a place that, when we arrived, was not quite ready to open; the owner suggested that we return in half an hour but Ginger had commitments so we opted for a cup of coffee at a café nearby and then I scouted out the location of the Dutch-Belgian Institute, which was supposed to be nearby.

I asked a member of the “Tourist Police” if he knew where the building was but neither he nor the colleague he shouted to across the street knew of it. Fine. I pull out my Cairo Guide and try to figure out the location using that. It had to be close by but the streets aren’t well marked and the dot in the guide indicating the institute’s location seems to be an approximation. Finally, after wandering for a few minutes, we locate the building on a side street by asking a guard sitting on a rickety wicker chair, “Can you please tell me where the Dutch-Flemish Institute is?”

“Sure,” he responds. Jerking his thumb over one shoulder, he says, “You’re standing in front of it.”

Oh, THERE it is, complete with brass plaque identifying it. Right around the corner from Ginger’s apartment, to her surprise. We thank the guard and I head back to the apartment to put my feet up. I spend rest of the afternoon catching up on blog entries and editing the collection development policy statements which are beginning to trickle in from the selectors at the Bibliotheca. By 6:30, Belle hasn’t shown up so I decide to walk across the river and try the restaurant that Ginger and I had seen earlier in the day. I eat a middling meal of eggplant moussaka amid couples chatting over their own meals and smoking to excess.

Toward the end of my meal, young people in twos and threes begin to drift in and head upstairs to what I assume is a lounge or bar of some sort. Two young women occupy a table diagonally across from mine; one orders a beer, the other a glass of red wine. If not for the language, I could be in a bistro anywhere in Europe or the U.S. After dinner, I head back to Belle’s and find her snuggled into an easy chair working on her computer. I had purchased a couple of pastries earlier in the day and we ate those as we shared a conversation. Tomorrow is the beginning of the conference and I want to be fresh, so after a while I take myself off to bed.

Wednesday morning comes too soon. I haven’t slept well and have to drag myself up. Belle is already in the kitchen finishing her breakfast as I come in to make some tea. I had offered to treat her to dinner in gratitude for her hospitality, and we decide to meet this evening. She heads off and I start getting ready for the first day of the workshop. I had made use of the washing machine the day before and now had clothing free of desert dust, but I still needed to iron a shirt. I took care of that and then dressed and grabbed a cab for Zamalek.

The lobby of the institute is already bustling with activity as people arrive to register for the workshop. The subject of the gathering is “Seals and Sealing Practices” in the Middle East. The conference will cover the entire range of history from the late Stone Age, through the ancient Egyptians and their cylinder seals, up to the Ottomans. The workshop and the lecture which concludes it are named in honor of Dr. R.P. Cleveringa, a professor of law at Leiden University at the beginning of World War Two, who publicly denounced the Nazis for dismissing the small number of Jewish professors from that institution when they occupied Holland. For his troubles, he was himself dismissed and thrown into prison. Activities commemorating Dr. Cleveringa’s courage are held each year not only in Cairo, but also in Holland.

The participants are each handed a name tag and offered coffee, tea, and an assortment of pastries. I seem to be the only American present and those of the other attendees I know I know only by reputation. There are Dutch and Flemish scholars, of course, but also French, several Germans, a Croatian with two of her students in tow, an Austrian, a Swiss, a Spaniard, and a Turk. Women outnumber men by more than two-to-one. Finally, a familiar face: Lennart Sundelin, a colleague from Princeton and a member of one professional group I belong to. He recognizes me first and re-introduces himself. We catch up and I find out that he is now also teaching at AUC. He likes living in Cairo.

We are called to order and the presentation of papers begins. There are thirteen papers to be delivered over the next day and a half as well as the honorary lecture at the conclusion of the meeting. We proceed in chronological order and by the lunch break we are in the 5th century A.D. Lunch is finger sandwiches, soft drinks and more coffee and tea. The two afternoon sessions are devoted exclusively to ancient Egypt but by the end of the day we are talking about Coptic seals and are approaching the Islamic period.

It is brought to our attention that all the speakers have been invited to dinner that evening, so I have to call Belle to find out if we can re-schedule our dinner plans. She says that she will be unable to do that since she has a commitment for Thursday evening. I apologize for the short notice and we agree to a dinner the next time I’m in Cairo.

After the last paper, I head back to the apartment to relax for a while and then head off to the restaurant the Institute has chosen for our meal. The Greek Club is located on Talat Harb Square, near downtown and, according to my Cairo map, within walking distance of the apartment. It looks like straight shot, so about half an hour before the appointed time, I strike out. I follow one of the wandering streets through Garden City and find Qasr al-Ayni, which leads right into Tahrir Square where Talat Harb Street begins. A pleasant twenty-minute walk brings me to Tahrir, which oozes activity at this early evening hour. I turn right onto Talat Harb and enter a busy commercial district. Not half a block along, I am greeted by a gray-haired Egyptian who says, “Good evening.”

“Masa` al-Kheer,” I reply.

“Where are you from?” he asks, picking up my pace. “America?”

“Yes,” I respond. “America.”

“Welcome to Egypt!”

“Thanks.” “I’ve been to the States three times,” says the Egyptian. “My brother lives in New Jersey.”

Bad luck for him, I think, but I say, “How nice.”

“Where are you going?”

“I have an appointment,” I reply. I’ve learned not to give out too much information. “Nice to meet you.”

“Do you have time to visit my perfume factory?”

Really. Not going to fall for THAT again. “Sorry. I have to meet someone, but thanks. Maybe another time.” I hurry on as my companion slackens his pace and drops back.

“Welcome to Egypt.” One last desperate hook. I don’t look back.

Reaching Talat Harb Square, a couple of blocks further along, I spot Ulrike Dubiel, one of the presenters from earlier today. She is a bit disoriented; we had been told that the entrance to the Greek Club looked like the entryway to an apartment building; the landmark to watch for was Groppi’s, a famous café that has lost its luster of late. Together we search out the entrance and are assisted by two Egyptians, who happen to be heading to the same place. Upstairs we find several other participants already well into their first glasses of wine or beer. We find seats and join in the conversations under way. The room is large and lit with lamps that have red fabric flags attached to them. The flags are fixed in such a way that a current of air makes them dance like flames in the light of electric bulbs beneath them. Cheesy, but somehow appropriate in this obviously colonial vestige.

The food is good and plentiful. The first course, stuffed vine leaves, babaghanoush, hummous, kufta, and a salad, is served family style and everyone takes what they want. Main courses are ordered individually, according to taste and inclination. I order skewered shrimp and rice which is very good. Conversation buzzes and more wine appears. Dessert is offered, but I’m full. We continue talking and learning about each other as the dishes are cleared. A motion is made by one of our hosts to move to a nightclub and continue the liquid portion of the evening. But most people have had a full day and decline. We share a taxi back to Garden City and I get dropped near the apartment. My hostess is already in bed and I find my own pillow.

Thursday morning begins with a tour of the Coptic Museum in the southern part of Cairo. It’s a short Metro ride away so I walk to Tahrir Square, again, and catch the train there. Four stops brings me to the Coptic Museum, but I have trouble exiting the train platform. The machine won’t take my subway ticket so the turnstile won’t open. I try several different machines to no avail and finally one Egyptian woman, seeing my predicament offers her help. She must have had the magic touch, for the next time I put my ticket in the machine, it let me through.

The Coptic Museum was just outside the train station and I saw many conference people waiting outside the gate. Once we were all assembled our hosts led us in and we spent a couple of hours being conducted through the various exhibits. The museum has been refurbished in the recent past and is really quite impressive. The lighting of some of the display cases was a little too dim for me, but overall it is a very interesting place to go. At the end of our tour we were led to a small courtyard where about a dozen examples of printing blocks or stamps were brought out of the storehouse for us to examine. Fortunately, one of the speakers is an expert in Coptic and therefore was able to read and interpret many of the stamps.

After the tour, we found our way back to Tahrir Square and took taxis across the Nile to Zamalek. Nils Ritter of Freie Universitaet, Nicolas Sartori of the University of Basel and I made our way to Beano’s, a café just around the corner from the Dutch Institute, for lunch. We ate sandwiches and then headed back for the afternoon sessions which all dealt with the Islamic period. There were four speakers and I was to be the second. I made my presentation and was pleased that people responded positively. There were several questions and I was glad that I had mounted a couple of additional slides with which I could illustrate my answers. Two papers followed mine and then we were finished with that part of the program.

A brief hiatus followed to allow the stage to be set for Petra Sijpesteijn’s lecture, the star attraction of the event. Some of us returned to Beano’s for coffee and found Petra, Lennart, and another participant already there. We shared a table and chatted until it was time to return to the Institute. The room was packed for Petra’s presentation; the audience included the Dutch Ambassador to Egypt and several other dignitaries in addition to interested members of the public. Petra’s lecture, on early Islamic administrative practice as evidenced by the use of seals, was wonderful, detailed enough to be thorough yet not getting lost in minutiae. Her argument was clearly made and convincing.

When she concluded, the moderator suggested that questions be deferred to the reception and everyone filed out. In the foyer were wine, beer, and an assortment of nibbles, served by white-shirted men. I made this my dinner and after collecting a few business cards, e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers, I took my leave. I had to pack for my departure in the morning and wanted to have everything in order for an early departure. This was a fitting conclusion to my week in Cairo and it was now time to get back to library work.

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